(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of South Korean trainee doctors defied a government deadline to end their walkout in protest of a plan to increase medical school seats, risking punishment that includes arrest and a suspension of their licenses.

Most of the some 9,000 trainee doctors who walked off the job did not return Friday after a government deadline expired, Yonhap News Agency reported. The government gave them until the end of February to end the nearly two-week walkout that it says has led to people being turned away from understaffed emergency rooms and the cancellations of about half of surgeries.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare issued a public notice on its website saying that some of the doctors in the collective action have been ordered to return to work. The move is likely a way to start a process for implementing disciplinary measures.

Friday is a national holiday in South Korea and any full-scale response may not come until Monday when government officials return to work. The Korean Medical Association, the country’s biggest lobby group for doctors, is planning a rally for Sunday where it anticipates about 20,000 doctors attending.

Police raided offices of KMA officials for suspected violation of medical regulations, Yonhap reported Friday, without saying where it got the information. The government filed a criminal complaint this week against five doctors it suspects of encouraging the mass walkout, taking the first legal step that could lead to the loss of medical licenses.

“Doctors are angered by the government’s outrageous behavior,” the KMA said in a statement, adding the plan to increase enrollment would push the health-care system “to the brink of ruin.”

About 70% of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors have walked out over the plan to increase enrollment by 2,000 spots from the current 3,058. The government said the number of medical students has not been raised for about three decades and South Korea now has one of the most acute doctor shortages in the developed world as it faces a rapidly aging population.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has stood firm on its plan to add spaces at medical schools. It has indicated willingness to discuss concerns of the doctors such as low pay and long hours for the trainees, and revisions to the legal system for malpractice suits.

Yoon’s support rate hit 39% in a weekly tracking poll released Friday from Gallup Korea, it’s highest since July last year, with a major factor being support for his plan to increase seats at medical schools, the polling agency said. 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. 

Yoon’s government has threatened to arrest and prosecute people who refuse to comply by the government order to return to work, and is looking at suspending the licenses of doctors for encouraging a labor action that it says defies medical regulations. It can also seek to revoke licenses of doctors for leading a collective action that violates the law.

The doctors argue the enrollment 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.

Members from the two sides held their first talks Thursday. The government said no progress was made.

Polling also indicates broad 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.

--With assistance from Jenny Lee.

(Updates with comments from doctors’ group in paragraph six.)

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