(Bloomberg) -- South Korea called on about 9,000 trainee doctors who have walked off the job to return to work by Thursday without facing reprisals, trying to end a protest that has led to canceled surgeries and patients being turned away from emergency rooms.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said Monday the government is making its “final appeal” to end the nearly weeklong walkout to protest its plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools by 2,000 from the current 3,058. The policy is aimed at heading off a doctor shortage that ranks as one of the most acute in the developed world, and is only expected to grow worse as South Korea faces a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest-aging populations.

“If you return to hospitals by Feb. 29, the government will not hold you accountable for what has happened,” Lee said in a government meeting. The administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol has been preparing to arrest, prosecute and possibly suspend the licenses of doctors for organizing a labor action it argues runs counter to the law.

Labor groups backing the doctors contend the plan to increase enrollments won’t fix fundamental problems in the health-care system that they say include a lack of specialists in certain fields, poor working conditions, too many doctors in urban areas and not enough protection against malpractice suits. 

Critics say the doctors may be more worried about seeing their incomes fall if they face more competition. South Korean doctors have some of the highest pay in the developed world when compared to the average worker, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

Both sides appear to be digging in as the labor action heads into its second week. South Korea has raised its health-care alert to the highest level as major hospital groups reported disruptions to service and the government makes preparations for a prolonged walkout.

A total of 9,006 of the country’s some 13,000 trainee doctors have not reported to work, the Health and Welfare Ministry said Monday. The labor action is expected to grow with hundreds of new medical school graduates refusing to take internship positions, Yonhap News agency reported. 

Over the weekend, Yoon’s government said it has no plans to reduce number of extra seats at medical schools, calling its proposal essential for getting more doctors in more places. 

Yoon’s approval rating has climbed to a three-month high, according to a weekly poll by Gallup Korea released Friday, as his tough stance on striking doctors gains support among voters frustrated with disruptions to the health-care system. 

About three-quarters of the public supports the government’s move to increase medical school enrollment, according to Gallup.

The government has opened emergency rooms at 12 military hospitals nationwide to the public as some hospitals have been trying to steer potential patients away from their emergency facilities due to staffing shortages. It has also implemented telemedicine nationwide.

--With assistance from Seyoon Kim and Heejin Kim.

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