Park Geun Hye, South Korea's president, center, speaks with relatives of missing passengers of the sunken ferry at Jindo gymnasium in Jindo-gun, South Korea, on April 17.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s approval rating slid to the lowest point in four months amid public disaffection over her handling of the nation’s deadliest ferry sinking in more than four decades.
Park’s rating fell to 48 percent between April 28 and 30, compared to 59 percent the third week of that month, Gallup Korea said today on its website, citing a poll of 1,008 people with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. Her rating in the same survey series had hovered over 50 percent since the third week of December.
On April 27, Park accepted Prime Minister Chung Hong Won’s resignation over what he called the government’s failure to deal effectively with the April 16 disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing. Two days later, she apologized over the sinking while meeting with Cabinet ministers.
“People are feeling disappointed in the way she’s delivered her apology and feel she’s not quite identifying with them over this tragedy,” Rhee Jong Hoon, a political commentator who heads the iGM political consulting firm in Seoul, said by phone. “Whether her rating bounces ahead of the June 4 municipal elections will depend on how much she is able to overcome that impression and reshuffle the Cabinet.”
Park said today during a meeting with religious leaders she would issue another apology in public, and acknowledged problems within the government’s disaster control process, according to a report on her office’s website. Ensuring safety should be the top concern in budget allocation, she said yesterday, according to her spokesman Min Kyung Wook.
Divers have retrieved 226 bodies from the five-deck ferry than sank off the southwestern coast, while 76 people are missing, according to an e-mailed statement from the coast guard. South Korea will rely on more than 210 fishing boats to search around uninhabited islands for bodies that may have been swept away by currents, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said today at a briefing.
The majority of the estimated 476 people who were aboard the ferry were students from Danwon High School on a field trip to the resort island of Jeju. Only 75 of the 325 students survived in what has become the country’s biggest maritime disaster since 1970 when the “Namyoung” ferry sank, killing 323.
“The fact that most of the victims were high school kids sets this tragedy apart from others,” Choi Chang Ryul, a professor of liberal arts at Yong In University and a political commentator, said by phone.
Tens of thousands of mourners have lined up every day to lay white chrysanthemums at memorials set up across the country, including near the school in Ansan, southwest of Seoul. Park visited the Ansan altar on April 29.
The students and other passengers were told to stay put in life jackets after the Sewol started sinking. On April 21, Park called the crew’s action of leaving the passengers behind “like murder.” Investigators are looking into the crew’s claim they were unable to make the announcement to evacuate, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin said today by phone from Mokpo, where the investigation team is based.
The investigation is also probing allegations the operator of the ferry reduced ballast water in the hull to be able to carry more cargo. “The Sewol didn’t have facilities to hold cargo together which would prevent it from sliding,” Yang said.
All 15 crew members involved in navigation have been arrested, including Captain Lee Joon Seok, who wasn’t on the bridge when the ship started sinking, the third mate named Park, who was steering the ferry, and a helmsman called Cho. Homicide through abandonment carries a prison term of three years or more and a life sentence is possible under Korean law.
The investigation also targets ship operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., its executives and the money flow between its affiliates, the Korea Shipping Association that oversees ferry operators, as well as the coast guard. Chonghaejin Marine chief executive officer Kim Han Shik was questioned by prosecutors in Incheon on April 29, while the owner family led by Yoo Byung Eun is under investigation, prosecutors have said.
Yoo Hyuk Gi, the second son of Yoo Byung Eun, has not responded to orders to appear for questioning for a second time, Son Byoung Gi, attorney for the family, said today by phone.