(Bloomberg) -- The South Korean government held its first talks with doctors who have walked off the job in protest of a plan to increase slots of medical schools, as a deadline looms for them to return to work — or face punishment.

The Health and Welfare Ministry said Thursday morning it proposed talks to address the 10-day walkout by about 9,000 trainee doctors. The labor action has led to about a 50% reduction in surgeries, people being turned away from emergency rooms and strains to the health-care system, the government said.

The ministry said the two sides discussed various issues but the talks did not produce any outcome. 

“Today is our last day of waiting for trainee doctors to make the right judgment and decision,” Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said in a government meeting before the talks where he called for an end to the walkout. He said “desperate patients are waiting for surgeries,” and the government will work to improve labor conditions.

Vice Health Minister Park Minsoo told reporters the government plans to shorten working hours for trainee doctors, adding nearly 300 have returned to work after taking part in the walkout.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has stood firm on its plan to add 2,000 spaces at medical schools from the current 3,058 to head off a shortage of doctors that ranks among the most acute in the developed world. It has indicated willingness to discuss concerns of the doctors such as low pay for the trainees and making adjustments to the mechanisms for malpractice suits, but said more doctors are needed to address the demographics of a rapidly aging country.

The biggest lobby group for doctors is pressing for the government to scrap its plan to increase enrollments, saying the move won’t fix fundamental flaws such as a lack a specialists in certain fields seen as lower paying. Joo Sooho, a spokesman for the Korean Medical Association, said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday the group expects a major show of force at a rally Sunday with some 20,000 doctors anticipated to attend.

Read more: Deadline Won’t Stop South Korean Doctors’ Protest, Group Says

Yoon’s government has threatened to arrest and prosecute those who refuse to comply by the government order and is looking at suspending the licenses of doctors for encouraging a labor action that it says defies medical regulations. There has been no clarity as to the details of the actual deadline but the government has indicated if doctors are not back at their posts by Friday, they will be in defiance of orders to return to work — and risk having their medical licenses suspended.

Earlier this week, Yoon’s government showed it was ready to bring down the hammer when it filed a criminal complaint against five doctors it suspects of encouraging the mass walkout. This is the first legal step that could lead to the stripping of medical licenses.

Polling indicates wide support among the public for the government plan. Critics of the walkout contend the labor action may be more about protecting the earning power of doctors, which ranks near the top among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, rather than improving the quality of the South Korean health-care system.

Yoon has seen his support rate rise to a three-month high in a weekly tracking poll from Gallup Korea as he has not bowed to pressure to scrap or reduce his plan to increase medical school seats. This could help his conservative People Power Party in April elections, where it is trying to take control of parliament from the progressive Democratic Party. 


(Updates with comment on talks in paragraph three.)

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