South Korea to disband coast guard in wake of ferry disaster

Hundreds march on president’s office, calling on her to step down

South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye bows after delivering a speech to the nation at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul  today. Photograph: Reuters

South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye bows after delivering a speech to the nation at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul today. Photograph: Reuters


President Park Geun-hye of South Korea vowed today to disband her country’s coast guard, saying that South Korea owed “reform and a great transformation” to hundreds of high school students who died in a ferry disaster last month.

Bowing deeply, Ms Park offered a “heartfelt apology” for having failed to prevent the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16th and for the coast guard’s bungling of rescue operations. “The ultimate responsibility lies with me, the president,” she said. Although she had apologized a few times over the sinking, Ms Park’s nationally televised speech today was her clearest expression of public contrition.

As of today, 286 people had been confirmed dead, with 18 missing, making the episode one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters. It has also developed into Ms Park’s biggest political crisis; over the weekend, the police detained more than 200 people who had tried to march on her office, calling on her to step down.

“We failed to save those students who should have been saved,” she said. “I will make this an opportunity for South Korea to be born again.”

She promised to disband the coast guard and reorganize her government to help it deal more efficiently with disasters. The vast majority of the dead and missing were students trapped in the dangerously listing ferry after its crew repeatedly urged them to stay put. When the first coast guard boats arrived at the scene April 16th, they saved the ship’s captain and other crew members who were deserting the ship.

The coast guard “didn’t do its duty,” Ms Park said. “If it had tried to rescue people more swiftly and more actively right after the accident, it could have greatly reduced the casualties.”

The duties of the coast guard will be absorbed into the national police force or into a new safety agency that Park said she would create to ensure that disasters are handled better.

Toward the end of the speech, she turned emotional, struggling to fight back tears, as she cited the names of those she called “true heroes”: students, crew members and teachers who survivors said helped passengers escape but did not make it out themselves.

“The sinking of the Sewol will stay as a hard-to-erase scar in our history,” she said. “It’s the duty of the living to make reform and a great transformation for the country so that the sacrifices of the dead were not wasted. If we cannot reform ourselves in a situation like this, we will become a nation that will never be able to achieve reform.”

With that, she declared a war against what she called her country’s deeply entrenched culture of “kkiri kkiri,” or collusive ties between businesses and government regulators that she said had spawned lax regulatory enforcement and an easy acceptance of poor safety standards throughout the society.

Investigators of the ferry sinking say that corrupt culture contributed to the disaster. The ferry was overloaded with cargo that was poorly secured, and yet it was ruled safe to sail by the Korean Shipping Association, a lobby for the industry that was also in charge of inspecting the safety of ships. Central government officials were accused of failing to supervise the association, where their former colleagues and bosses found high-ranking jobs.

Critics have said that virtually all other industries are plagued by what Park called “bureaucratic mafia”: government officials taking cushy jobs in the industries they used to regulate. Such jobs are considered important perks for retiring government officials, who then shield the industries from regulators. To break the collusive links, Park said she would revise laws to tighten the screening of officials looking for private-sector jobs after retirement.

She also called for the revision of the criminal code to increase punishments drastically for those who endanger the lives of many people. She called the decision by the Sewol’s captain and crew to flee ahead of passengers “like an act of murder.”

Ms Park said she would send bills to the National Assembly to make the changes she proposed. Her governing party controls a majority in Parliament, and there has been mounting public pressure for reform in the government.

The New York Times