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[Ferry Disaster] Prime minister quits over ferry disaster

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered to resign Sunday amid public outrage over the government’s bungled response to the sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which over 300 died or went missing.

“On behalf of the government, I want to apologize for a series of problems from preventive steps (for such accidents) to the government’s initial response and follow-up measures,” he said in a press conference at the government complex in Seoul. “Witnessing the sorrows of those who lost their loved ones and sadness and anger of the people, I felt the right thing for me to do was to take all responsibility as the prime minister.”

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Chung said he felt it was not wise to burden the government by keeping his job. He declined to comment on whether the rest of the Cabinet would also offer to resign.

President Park Geun-hye’s office said she would accept his resignation after the incident was resolved. This means Chung is likely to stay in office until late May.

The widely-expected Cabinet reshuffle, which would have kicked off as Chung stepped down, is also likely to be delayed.

The prime minister, the second in command, also said that that rampant “corruption and malpractices” in Korean society that contributed to the disaster must be rooted out. A nationwide probe that followed the accident revealed various irregularities in the management of the Sewol’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co.

It was also revealed that the company hired substandard crew for the ferry in a bid to save costs.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy blasted Chung’s offer to resign, calling it “utterly irresponsible and cowardly.” It also called on Park to sincerely apologize for the incident to console the bereaved families of the victims.

“The Cabinet, including the prime minister, must put all their efforts into managing the current situation. The responsible attitude would be to apologize to the people and succumb to their will afterward,” said NPAD coleader Ahn Cheol-soo.

Chung’s abrupt resignation is widely interpreted as an attempt to calm the public’s discontent with the Park administration’s disaster management.

The 6,825-ton Sewol capsized on April 16 while en route to Jejudo Island from Incheon, and took some 300 of its 476 passengers underwater. The majority of the passengers aboard the doomed ship were high school students on a trip to the island.

The government, flustered in the face of a looming tragedy, initially mistook the situation for a minor incident after a false report claimed all passengers had been safely rescued. It was only after the ship had sunk that the authorities recognized the gravity of the situation.

Families of the dead and missing accused the government of failing to act promptly or put enough efforts into search and rescue operations.

A pan-government response team headed by Chung was formed more than a day after the accident, and even then official numbers on passengers, survivors and the dead were inconsistent.

The former prosecutor took office as the Park government’s first prime minister, in February last year.

By Yoon Min-sik (