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Embattled Park attempts to move on from Sewol tragedy

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Published : 2014-05-19 21:21
Updated : 2014-05-19 21:21

President Park Geun-hye offered a fresh public apology Monday over the Sewol ferry disaster and vowed to carry out drastic reform measures to enhance the nation’s safety standards.

Her 24-minute speech, delivered with expressions of anger, determination and grief, was seen as a desperate attempt to overturn the worsening public sentiment toward her.

With her voice choked with emotion and tears running down her face, Park held herself “ultimately responsible” for the disaster and vowed to reform the country’s safety system at all costs.

The president had apologized to the people for the government’s poor response at several events since late last month, but her apologies were criticized as being informal and reluctant. The families of the victims charged that her past apologies were nothing but words. The media branded them as mediocre, and the main opposition party said her attitude was not sincere enough to embrace the pain of the people over the disaster.

Monday’s address was her fifth apology, but was the first delivered in a separate setting specifically prepared for the announcement.

The embattled leader seemed to have spent a few weeks carefully choosing her words.
Maritime policemen pass by a patrol-vessel picture on a wall at the Korea Coast Guard on Monday, when President Park Geun-hye said the administration would dismantle the agency in the wake of the Sewol disaster. (Yonhap)

The address was politically important for her. With local elections less than two weeks away, the ruling party has been struggling to shore up voter support. She needed to regain public confidence to carry out sweeping public sector reforms and economic innovation, and to prepare for the peaceful unification that she announced earlier this year.

In an apparent attempt to drag her and her government out of its biggest crisis so far, Park made a surprising decision. The president said she would dismantle the 61-year-old Coast Guard and reorganize the ministries of security and maritime affairs, which she re-launched as part of her government reorganization plan to push ahead with her major state agenda aimed at enhancing the public security and maritime affairs development last year.

“The Coast Guard failed to fulfill its original duties in the Sewol accident. Had it actively carried out rescue efforts immediately after the accident, it would have been possible to greatly reduce (the number of) lives lost,” she said. “The rescue efforts of the Coast Guard almost completely failed.”

She also proposed enacting special laws or revising existing ones to crack down on suspicious business ties between government officials and businesses, and toughen punishment of businesses that threaten customers’ safety in pursuit of profits.

Park, however, did not mention any plans to reshuffle her cabinet.

Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said Park was expected to carry out a major Cabinet reshuffle after she returns from a trip to the United Arab Emirates. President Park left later Monday for the Middle Eastern country to participate in an opening ceremony for the first nuclear reactor built overseas by a Korean consortium. She returns on Wednesday morning.

Critics say that she may have moved people‘s hearts, but questions remain over whether she will also succeed a number of complicated plans she has promised in her address.

Her plan to overhaul the deeply rooted bureaucratic culture that prioritize personal relations ahead of official duties and the practice of looking after interests of businesses in exchange of favors, have been cited as one of the biggest challenges for past governments. Her predecessors also vowed to bring change to public offices, but seldom made significant progress.

Questions also remain over her reshuffle plans, as she has often come under fire for unexpected personnel appointments that lacked clear selection criteria.

Park’s tearful address also drew mixed reactions from political circles and the public.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy criticized the president, claiming that the plans revealed in the address were lackluster and reiterated the call for a special counsel investigation. The opposition party also urged Cheong Wa Dae to take charge of disaster situations.

“The Cheong Wa Dae National Security Council needs to be the control tower in times of national disasters. The people can only rest at ease if the president receives briefings and takes charge personally,” said NPAD cochairman Rep. Kim Han-gil. He added that the special counsel investigation must be conducted to reveal the reasons behind the inadequate initial response and for the failure of emergency measures to take effect.

The minor opposition Unified Progressive Party went a step further by saying that the address was “the height of irresponsibility.”

The ruling Saenuri Party, for its part, highlighted the president’s apology, adding its own in a briefing.

“The apology was honest and sincere, and truthful. As the ruling party, the Saenuri Party feels a heavy responsibility for failing to protect the people,” Saenuri Party spokesman Rep. Ham Jin-gyu said.

The ruling party’s stance, however, was not shared by the families of those still missing. Following the address, the families of the missing demanded that the search operations continue, without being affected by the plans to dismantle the Coast Guard. The families also expressed anger over the fact that the president did not mention the missing passengers.

By Cho Chung-un and Choi He-suk
(christory@heraldcorp.com) (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)

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