South Korean President Park Geun Hye apologized to the nation over the deadly sinking of a passenger ferry that left 300 people dead or missing and said she’ll disband 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.
After the coast guard is dismantled, its rescue operations will be folded into a new safety agency Park plans to create and its investigative work will move to the national police, she said.
Park’s public apology came days after North Korean officials publicly asked forgiveness over the collapse of an apartment building in the capital of Pyongyang on May 13. More than 160 people died in the collapse, South Korean Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified Chinese businessman returning from North Korea.
In the South, divers continue to search for the 18 remaining victims of the Sewol and have retrieved 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 spoke in trembling voices as she called the names of passengers and crew members who reportedly died while trying to save others. Park had issued an apology April 29 during a cabinet meeting.
Park didn’t comment on her plan to reshuffle the Cabinet over the sinking. Last month, she accepted Prime Minister Chung Hong Won’s resignation offer. Chung will still remain in office until the government response to the disaster concludes.
All 15 crew members involved in navigation have been indicted, including Captain Lee Joon Seok, who wasn’t on the bridge when the ship started sinking, and three others on homicide charges. Homicide 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.
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.
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.