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S Korea's Park announces coastguard break-up

President apologises again for ferry disaster, vowing sweeping reforms to improve oversight and tackle corruption.

Last updated: 19 May 2014 09:30
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The president of South Korea has taken direct responsibility for a botched ferry rescue operation, promising to dismantle the coastguard for its shortcomings after a maritime disaster claimed hundreds of lives.

Park Geun-hye offered "a heartfelt apology for the pains the people have suffered" on Monday, adding: "The ultimate responsibility for failing to respond properly to this accident lies with me."

It is at least her third apology since the 6,825 tonne Sewol sank on April 16, but it is the first time she has wholly shouldered the blame for the response to the accident.

Most of the victims were students and the majority of these were from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city south of the capital Seoul. They were on a school trip to the island resort of Jeju.

"I have decided to dismantle the coastguard," Park said in a televised address. "The coastguard's rescue operations were virtually a failure."

"It is our duty to reform and transform the country so that these lives were not lost for nothing. Now is the time to leave frustration behind and move forward. We have to set the country upright and transform it.

"I will stake my political life on correcting the wrong practices that have plagued our country for so long and to create a new republic of Korea," she said. 

According to the Korea Herald, the death toll as of Sunday was 286 and the number of people unaccounted for was 18.

Sweeping reforms 

Park vowed sweeping reforms to improve oversight, as well as tough punishment for bureaucrats and businesses whose negligence endangers public safety, the Reuters news agency reported.

"A 20-year-old vessel was bought and refurbished to add excessive capacity, then it was loaded with much more cargo than allowed with a false reporting on weight, but not a single person in the position to supervise stopped any of it," Park said.

She singled out structural problems within the coastguard as the main reason why there was such a high casualty toll from an accident that played out on national television as the vessel gradually sank with most of the passengers trapped inside.

The coastguard's rescue duties would be transferred to a national emergency safety agency to be set up and the national police will take over its investigative function, she said.

Some of the crew, including the captain, were caught on videotape abandoning ship while the children were repeatedly told to stay in their cabins and await further orders.

Park, who is in the second year of a single five-year term, has faced continued criticism and nationwide anger for her administration's handling of the disaster despite apologising personally to many family members of the victims.

Her public support has dropped to 46 percent, from 70 percent before the accident, according to a recent poll.

The president's formal apology and the blueprint for bureaucratic reform have been criticised for coming too late, while her decision to break up the coastguard has also been questioned.

"Although we need to integrate government functions on safety and disaster management, dissolving the coastguard all of sudden can make more problems that may be difficult to fix," said Professor Lee Jun-han of Incheon National University.

Park said the coastguard had not only failed in its search and rescue duty but that, in its current form, it would be unable to prevent another large-scale disaster.

All 15 surviving crew members were indicted last week, including the captain and three senior crew members on homicide charges. The remaining 11 crew were indicted for negligence.

The prosecution says the ferry was structurally defective after a remodelling to add capacity and was massively overloaded with cargo. A sharp turn then caused it to list and capsize.

The Sewol had been on a supposedly routine journey from the mainland port of Incheon south to the holiday island of Jeju.

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Source:
Al Jazeera And Jana
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