[Newsmaker] Resignation attempts to stem Sewol fallout

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Apr 27, 2014 - 21:15
  • Updated : Apr 27, 2014 - 21:27
Chung Hong-won, the nation’s second-in-command, made a bombshell announcement early Sunday that he would step down as Korea’s prime minister.

He said he wanted to take responsibility for the recent sinking of the ferry Sewol that claimed over 180 lives, and that he did not want to burden President Park Geun-hye’s administration by clinging on to his post.

Later in the day, Park said she would accept his resignation, but only after the ferry disaster has been brought under control.

Observers are suspecting political motivation behind Chung’s offer.

“I think the prime minister would have been placed under unbearable pressure from the ruling party, with the June local election approaching,” said Jang Sung-ho, a politics, journalism and security professor at Paichai University.

Chung’s announcement was initially seen as a complete surprise, but presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said the prime minister informed President Park of his intentions before he made the official announcement.
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (center) faces protests from families of missing passengers in the sinking of the ferry Sewol during his visit to their shelter at a gym on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, April 17. (Yonhap)

Some suspect that Park’s slumping popularity may have pushed Chung to offer his resignation as quickly as possible. According to a recent survey on 10,000 adults by Research View, 49.3 percent said the president was doing a poor job in running the country.

As her high popularity had been regarded one of the key factors in the June election, the decline in Park’s approval rating can prove to be critical for the ruling Saenuri Party.

Professor Yang Seung-ham of Yonsei University said Chung’s resignation is likely to be a form of punishment. “The (public’s) faith toward the government has totally collapsed, which called for a wide-scale revamp of the Cabinet.”

He added that a large-scale reshuffling of the Cabinet is in order, adding that removing just the prime minister would not be enough for the government to win back the trust of the people.

Immediately after Chung’s announcement, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy denounced Chung as “irresponsible and cowardly” for abandoning his duties.

Shin Yul, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Myongji University, said Chung’s offer could be interpreted as an attempt to dodge responsibility.

These negative responses may have prompted the president to put off removing her top deputy until after the situation is under control. With the elections drawing near, however, opposition is expected to continue attacking the ruling party over Chung and the Sewol crisis.

While the government’s management of the Sewol accident is widely perceived as a fiasco, professor Shin warned against the opposition’s ruse.

“They’re calling on the president to take responsibility, but it is not that simple. Large-scale disasters also took place during past administrations, when the NPAD was in power. If they had worked on a crisis-management system, none of this may have happened,” he said.

If the NPAD attempts to turn the Sewol affair into a political discussion, it will face side effects, he said.

Professor Yang said the ideal stance for the opposition is to show people it is trying its best to cooperate with the government to manage the chaos that followed the fatal Sewol sinking.

By Yoon Min-sik (