(Bloomberg) -- South Korea filed a criminal complaint against five doctors it suspects of encouraging a mass walkout of trainee doctors, taking the first legal step that could lead to the stripping of medical licenses for those in the labor action.

The Health and Welfare Ministry said it filed the complaint with police Tuesday against five members of the Korean Medical Association lobby group for allegedly violating the medical law and an order to return to work. This stepped up pressure ahead of a Thursday deadline to return to work for thousands of trainee doctors who have walked off the job — without facing reprisals for their actions.

KMA spokesman Joo Sooho called the move “an exercise of unfair government power.” Joo said by telephone that members would be willing to explain their positions to police, if they are summoned by authorities.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has told doctors to end their walkout in protest of a government plan to increase seats at medical schools, saying the labor action is threatening lives and his government won’t bow to pressure. His government has been preparing to arrest, prosecute and possibly suspend the licenses of doctors who don’t heed to the ultimatum to return to work for organizing a labor action it contends runs counter to the law.

About 9,000 of the country’s some 13,000 trainee doctors walked off the job in the labor action that started last week. They are protesting a government plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks as one of the most acute in the developed world. 

The walkout has led to about a 50% reduction in surgeries and caused emergency rooms to turn away people due to staffing shortages, the government said. Yoon’s administration contends the plan is needed to have more doctors as the country faces a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest-aging populations.

The doctors argue the plan does not address fundamental problems such as poor working conditions, a concentration of physicians in urban areas and not enough protection from malpractice suits.

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 among 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. 

--With assistance from Michael Heath.

(Updates with comment from medical group in third paragraph.)

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