South Korean President Park Geun-hye, tears rolling down her cheeks, formally apologized yesterday for a ferry disaster that killed about 300 people, mostly school children, and said she would dismantle the coast guard for failing in its duties.
Park has been hit hard by an angry nationwide outcry over the government’s response to South Korea’s worst civilian maritime disaster in 20 years and the seemingly slow and ineffective rescue operation.
Polls show support for Park has dropped by more than 20 points since the April 16 disaster.
“I apologize to the nation for the pain and suffering that everyone felt, as the president who should have been responsible for the safety and lives of the people,” Park said in a televised national address, her first since the Sewol capsized and sank with 476 passengers and crew on board.
In an unprecedented show of emotion, tears flowed as she fought back sobs, remembering some of the teenagers who died trying to help one another, calling them heroes.
Park, who is serving a single five-year term, is the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, the military strongman who ruled for nearly two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. She lost both her parents to assassins.
At least 286 people on board the Sewol were killed and 18 remain missing. Only 172 people were rescued, with the rest presumed to have drowned.
Of the passengers, 339 were children and their teachers on a field trip from a high school on the outskirts of Seoul.
Park vowed sweeping reforms to improve oversight, as well as tough punishment for bureaucrats and businesses whose negligence endangers public safety.
“A 20-year-old vessel was bought and refurbished to add excessive capacity, then it was loaded with much more cargo than allowed with a false reporting on weight, but not a single person in the position to supervise stopped any of it,” Park said.
She singled out structural problems within the coast guard as the main reason why there was such a high casualty toll from an accident that played out on national television as the vessel gradually sank with most of the passengers trapped inside.
“Had there been an immediate and proactive rescue operation after the accident, we would have been able to reduce the casualties,” Park said.
The coast guard’s rescue duties would be transferred to a national emergency safety agency to be set up and the national police will take over its investigative function, she said.
Some of the crew, including the captain, were caught on videotape abandoning ship while the children were repeatedly told to stay put in their cabins and await further orders.
Park has apologized in person to many family members of the victims, but her administration has faced continued criticism for its handling of the disaster.
Park’s public support has dropped to 46 percent, from 70 percent before the accident, according to a recent poll. Her formal apology and the blueprint for bureaucratic reform have been criticized as coming too late, while her decision to break up the coast guard has also been questioned.
“Although we need to integrate government functions on safety and disaster management, dissolving the coast guard all of sudden can make more problems that may be difficult to fix,” Incheon National University professor Lee Jun-han said.