President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday apologized to the public for the government’s failures during the Sewol ferry disaster, which has left more than 300 dead or missing.
“(We) lost many precious lives. ... I am sorry to the people and am heavy-hearted,” she said during a weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
She made her apology an hour after paying her respects to the victims of the ferry sinking during a visit to a funeral altar in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. Ansan is home to Danwon High School, which lost about 260 students and teachers in the disaster.
Expressing her sympathy, the president said she shared the pain of the parents who lost their children in the tragic accident
“I don’t know how to apologize for the failure to prevent the accident and for the poor initial response in order to console the pain and the suffering of (the victims’ families) even for a moment.”
|President Park Geun-hye lays down a flower at the mourning altar in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
Her apology came 13 days after the ferry sank off the country’s southwestern coast on April 16. It was her first public apology for the disaster. The remark came amid mounting public criticism of the government for a lack of preventive efforts, a slow and inefficient initial response, and inappropriate follow-up measures. Of the 476 passenger abroad on the ferry, only 174 of those who evacuated before the vessel capsized survived. Despite life-risking efforts by divers, not a single passenger was returned to their families alive.
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered to resign on Sunday to take responsibility for the government’s poor response to the incident. Park said she would accept his resignation on the condition that he leave his post after the ferry disaster has been resolved. Since then, Park has been pressured by the opposition party to apologize for the incident and console the victims’ families.
The president ordered strict and fundamental changes to the country’s entire safety system, tightened discipline among government officials and demanded that the collusive ties between officials and industry be broken.
Park believes that irregularities and corruption deeply rooted in parts of society as well as insensitiveness to safety precautions have caused the deadly accident.
She vowed to eradicate those “evil practices” that have continued for many years despite efforts by previous governments.
“We should reestablish our determination to create a new safety system for Korea this time,” she said, ordering the Cabinet to come up with drastic measures to ensure public safety.
“We failed to counteract evils long accumulated from the past,” she said. “We should have made greater efforts to normalize abnormal practices in the early period of the administration.”
Enhancing public safety was one of Park’s major policy goals when taking office in 2013. In a show of her will to build a safe and secure society, the Park administration put the Public Administration Ministry in charge of supervising more safety affairs and changed its name to Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
In February, the president said she had instructed the security ministry to set up a nationwide system to manage disasters and emergencies.
But with the ministry failing to handle the ferry sinking along with growing public distrust of government officials, the president proposed launching a new ministry under the Prime Minister’s Office to prevent and better deal with disasters in the future and serve as a control tower in the event of an emergency.
“We have reached the conclusion that we need to build a strong, effective and integrated system to better deal with disasters by launching a new ministry wholly responsible for managing social and natural disasters,” she said.
The envisioned ministry will consist of experts specializing in crisis management and disaster response. It will also be given authority to train and deploy Special Forces in emergency situations, and will hire foreign professionals if needed, she said during the meeting. The meeting was held without Prime Minister Chung Hong-won in attendance. Chung revisited the ferry wreckage site again to lead the response team, his office said.
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org)