The Korea Herald

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Seoul weighs establishing first military medical school

By Park Jun-hee

Published : May 16, 2024 - 14:52

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A military doctor waits for an elevator at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap) A military doctor waits for an elevator at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it is mulling the establishment of an inaugural military medical school to secure doctors who would serve in the military for at least 10 years in an effort to improve the military medical system and enhance treatment capabilities.

"The Defense Ministry has been actively promoting and reviewing measures aimed at enhancing military medical capabilities, including the recruitment of long-term service military surgeons and the specialization of military hospitals," said Jeon Ha-kyu, the spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, during a routine press briefing.

"The establishment of a military medical school is among the options being considered to ensure a sustainable supply of military surgeons for long-term service. However, no policy decisions or implementation plans have been finalized at this stage."

The military medical school would educate surgeons who commit to serving in the military for a minimum of 10 years following their graduation.

The Defense Ministry plans to commission a research project to determine the structure and scale of a military medical school as early as this year, according to a ministry official who wished to remain anonymous.

Thursday's announcement followed Defense Minister Shin Won-sik's interview with KBS in April, during which he highlighted that the US operates a military medical school and provides scholarships to medical students from nonmilitary universities, allowing them to serve in the military for a set period.

Emphasizing the importance of such measures, Shin underscored, "I believe it's imperative for us to take proactive steps in this direction."

South Korea requires all able-bodied men to undergo at least 18 months of military service. Instead, male junior doctors have the option to fulfill their mandatory duties as medical officers for about 38 months.

But the country has recorded single digits in the number of applicants for long-term service over the past 10 years, according to authorities, amid wider calls for enhanced working conditions and increased wages.

There were no applicants for long-term positions in 2020 and 2023, while the highest number of applicants was four in 2014. Only one applicant applied for such positions in both 2021 and 2022.

The government previously pushed for establishing a national defense medical academy in 2011 to address the shortage of public health doctors. However, the Korean Medical Association -- the largest doctors' group here with some 140,000 members -- opposed the plan, claiming that 800 public health doctors are supplied annually, which could potentially lead to a surplus in military medical personnel.