President Park Geun-hye on Monday apologized to the public for the government’s failure to save hundreds of passengers of the sunken ferry, holding herself “ultimately responsible” for the disaster.
The president in a nationally televised address said she would carry out a series of sweeping reforms to improve the country’s safety standards and erect a new state emergency system to prevent further disasters like the Sewol ferry sinking.
As part of her drastic reform measures, Park said she would disband the Coast Guard for its failed rescue mission and execute extensive reorganizations of the Ministry of Security and Public Administration and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries for their failures in handling and preventing the disaster.
“As president (I am) responsible for the people’s lives and safety, and I offer a heartfelt apology for the pain the people have suffered,” Park said at the Blue House press center.
“The ultimate responsibility for failing to respond properly to this accident lies with me.”
|President Park Geun-hye apologizes to the nation for the poor handling of the sinking of the Sewol during a news conference at Cheong Wa Dae on Monday. (Yonhap)|
Park’s speech came 34 days after the Sewol sank off the country’s southwestern coast on April 16. The disaster left more than 300 dead or missing.
The president apologized to the people for the government’s poor response in several events since late last month. But she has been under escalating public criticism for apologizing in a manner that was seen as informal and reluctant.
The Sewol tragedy has put Park’s leadership into question as her approval rating has dropped from 60 percent to slightly over 40 percent, the lowest since she took office last year.
Park’s new apology Monday was viewed as an attempt to stabilize the state affairs and placate the public anger over the government’s chaotic response to the disaster.
During her speech highly charged with emotion, the president said the nation should move on from the tragedy by joining forces to fight against corruptive practices and tradition deeply rooted in sectors of society, which have been blamed for causing a manmade disaster like the Sewol.
“(For me) it has been days of agony and guilt. ... The sinking of the Sewol will leave an indelible scar on the nation’s history. However, if we build a truly safe Republic of Korea, it can also go on record as a new history. I believe such heavy responsibilities are given to all of us.”
At the end of her 24-minute speech, Park wept as she listed the names of nine ferry victims who were killed or went missing while trying to save others.
“I believe they are the true heroes of our times,” she said, her voice choking. “To comfort the souls of the victims and to ruminate the importance of safety, I propose to designate April 16 as National Safety Day.”
The president said the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts failed, and all of its functions would be transferred to other agencies including the new Ministry of National Safety that she previously proposed.
“(The Coast Guard’s) functions of investigation and intelligence will be transferred to the National Police Agency, and its roles of rescue operations and maritime security will be moved to the new ministry of national safety to greatly reinforce the professionalism and responsibility over maritime safety,” she said.
The Coast Guard has come under scrutiny for its poor initial response that it could have saved more lives if officials had made more rescue efforts as the ferry was sinking. The president also lashed out at the related ministries of security and maritime affairs, saying they have also failed to protect the lives of the people. Their key roles will be turning to the new ministries to be launched under the Prime Minister’s Office.
In a clear gesture to embrace demands both from the opposition party and the victims’ family, the president also proposed a truth-finding committee comprising ruling and the opposition party members and civilian experts. The main opposition party has called for a parliamentary probe into the disaster while representatives of victims’ families requested Park to form a civilian-led probe into the ferry sinking.
The president also vowed to crack down on businesses suspected to pose a threat to customers’ safety, like Chonghaejin Marine Co., the ill-fated ferry’s operator, and put an end to corrupt ties between government officials and businessmen in related industries.
“This accident shows how an abnormal practice of business ties between the government and the civil sector can leave the nation suffering in a gigantic catastrophe,” she said.
“I will, without fail, accomplish the reform drive to normalize the abnormal (practices) and break the chain of ties between officials and civilians that have threatened the people’s lives.”
To end a bureaucratic tradition of placing retired government officials to heads of related agencies or businesses, Park said she would not name them to lead organizations and agencies tasked to oversee safety regulations. She said she would propose a revision of a related law to limit officials to take posts after their retirement.
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org)