By Sam Kim
May 19 (Bloomberg) — South Korean President Park Geun Hye apologized to the nation over the sinking of a passenger ferry that left 300 people dead or missing and said she’ll break up the coast guard for its botched rescue operation.
“The coast guard has essentially failed in its rescue operations,” Park said today during a nationally televised speech. “Aggressive rescuing operations immediately following the sinking could have greatly reduced deaths.”
Only 172 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued after the Sewol began to list before capsizing and sinking off South Korea’s southwestern coast on April 16. The accident was the country’s worst maritime disaster in more than four decades and has brought Park’s approval rating to 46 percent, the lowest in a year, according to Gallup Korea.
The coast guard’s rescue operations will be folded into a new safety agency while its investigative work will move to the police, Park said. Parliamentary approval is required to disband the coast guard.
“It’s true that the coast guard needs to be reformed, but rescuing isn’t the only thing it does,” Choi Suk Yoon, a professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University in Busan, said by phone. “It handles patrol, anti-pollution and several other jobs. Disbanding the entire coast guard because it has botched rescue operations isn’t a very prudent response.”
The coast guard has about 8,000 officers, Choi said. Set up in 1953, it has in recent years led crackdowns on Chinese boats fishing in South Korean waters.
“All members of the coast guard will humbly accept the intention of the president and the people and continue to push forward with the search until the last remaining victim is found,” Kim Suk Kyoon, Commissioner General of the Coast Guard, said in an e-mailed government release.
Park has the “wrong diagnosis and prescription” for the failures surrounding the sinking and seems to be shifting blame to others, opposition parliamentarian Min Byung Doo told reporters, according to the website of his party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
Park’s public apology came days after North Korean officials publicly asked forgiveness over the collapse of an apartment building in the capital, Pyongyang, on May 13. More than 160 people died in the collapse, South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified Chinese businessman returning from North Korea.
‘Hacked to Pieces’
The government in the North showed little sympathy for Park over the ferry sinking.
“Park Geun Hye is a felon that more than deserves to be hacked to pieces just for this disaster alone,” said the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which handles relations with the South, describing the tears she shed during today’s apology as an attempt to evade responsibility. The comment was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Families of those still missing after the ferry sinking are “deeply” concerned Park’s decision will hurt the morale of coast guard officials, a man only identified as the father of a victim said at a press conference carried on broadcaster YTN. The coast guard has teamed up with navy and civilian divers for the search.
Divers continue to look for the 18 remaining victims of the Sewol and have recovered 286 bodies from the five-deck ferry that capsized en route to the resort island of Jeju, according to a government website. The majority of passengers were students from a high school near Seoul on an excursion. Only 75 of the 325 students survived.
“I spent sleepless nights in agony, thinking about students whose lives had yet to blossom, a child left alone now after what has become the final family trip and a string of tearful tragedies of victims,” Park said. “As President, I feel sorrow to have failed to protect them.”
Park stepped aside to bow in apology during the speech and later cried as she called out the names of passengers and crew members who reportedly died while trying to save others. Park issued an earlier apology on April 29 during a cabinet meeting.
Park didn’t comment on a possible reshuffle of the cabinet over the sinking. Last month, she accepted Prime Minister Chung Hong Won’s offer to resign. Chung will stay in office until the government response to the disaster concludes.
All 15 crew members involved in navigation have been indicted. Captain Lee Joon Seok, who wasn’t on the bridge when the ship started sinking, and three others were charged with homicide. The crime is punishable by death in South Korea, while no one has been executed for the offense since 1997.
While many in the crew abandoned ship, the passengers had been told to stay put after the Sewol started sinking. Park called the crew’s action of leaving the passengers behind “essentially murder.”
Ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co.’s “excessive expansion” of the Sewol and “abnormal” pursuit of profits also led to the sinking, she said. “This accident shows how huge a catastrophe can be brought about by the abnormal collusion between the civilian sector and the government,” Park said, criticizing maritime officials for failing to spot safety breaches at ship operators and working for interest groups after retirement.
Nearly 2 million mourners have visited memorials set up across the country to pay respect to the victims, according to an e-mailed government statement. Park on April 29 visited an altar in Ansan where the high school is located.
On May 6, a civilian diver died in the hospital after being taken out of the water unconscious.
In 1970, more than 320 people died when the “Namyoung” ferry sank in South Korea.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.