Calls are mounting in political circles for President Park Geun-hye to overhaul her Cabinet in response to last week’s ferry disaster that left 302 people, most of whom were teenagers on a school trip, dead or missing.
All officials responsible for the tragic maritime accident should be subject to stern punishment, and a Cabinet reshuffle seems necessary to tighten discipline and enhance the sense of responsibility among public servants. But this matter should be considered and handled without being influenced by political calculations.
Some members of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party have suggested that President Park overhaul her ministerial lineup before local elections are held nationwide on June 4. They demand that, at the very least, the announcement of the reshuffle be made before the election date, though parliamentary confirmation hearings on nominees may have to be held after the polls.
Behind this call is growing concern that ruling party candidates may be trounced in the elections, especially in Seoul and neighboring areas, amid public resentment caused by the government’s dismal handling of the ferry sinking. According to a local polling agency executive, Park’s approval rating, which hovered above 70 percent before the accident, had dropped to 56.5 percent Wednesday.
A lawmaker from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy insisted at a recent parliamentary committee session that all Cabinet members resign en masse to placate the public. His demand indicates that the opposition will go on using the ferry disaster to turn the upcoming polls into a vote of no confidence in the incumbent administration.
But such moves by the main political parties seem far from striking the right chord with the nation in grief. A Cabinet reshuffle to help pull the ruling party out of its possible election rout would be too easy a solution. And the demand that all Cabinet members step down immediately would be too irresponsible.
Repeating the habitual calls for the resignation of ministers following tragic accidents would the easiest ― and perhaps most meaningless ― response by the mainstream parties to help prevent man-made disasters like the ferry sinking from recurring and relieve the agony and anger of victims’ families.
Before denouncing government officials for botched rescue efforts and poor oversight over the company that operated the doomed ship, lawmakers should feel ashamed for neglecting their legislative duties. There can be no excuse for having delayed the passage or even deliberation of bills aimed at strengthening safety and security measures amid prolonged partisan wrangling. A subpanel under the parliamentary education committee hurriedly passed a bill designed to enhance the safety of school trips, which was submitted last year, only to amplify public anger.
Lawmakers have also in the past used confirmation hearings as stages for political offensives rather than opportunities to scrutinize the expertise and integrity of ministerial nominees.
Parliamentary members should now take the initiative to establish an effectual system for preventing and managing disasters and emergencies by promptly enacting necessary legislation. In particular, strenuous efforts should be made to draw up and implement measures to protect children from all the threats to their safety. Their harder, long-term role will be to keep administration officials under scrutiny to ensure the safety system functions properly in all circumstances.
Parties and their candidates will gain voter support in the upcoming local polls and future elections not through what they say and whom they criticize, but by proving they are truly committed to this task that requires persistence and thoroughness. It’s time for politicians to ask themselves what politics is for in a high-tech nation that has lost hundreds of young lives due to utter ignorance of safety rules.