South Korean prime minister resigns over ferry disaster

Chung Hong-won takes responsibility for government’s response to sinking of Sewol

South Korean prime minister Chung Hong-won’s resignation speech is aired in the Jindo gymnasium, where family members of missing Sewol ferry passengers are staying. Photograph: Jean Chung/The New York Times

South Korean prime minister Chung Hong-won’s resignation speech is aired in the Jindo gymnasium, where family members of missing Sewol ferry passengers are staying. Photograph: Jean Chung/The New York Times

 

With scores of people still missing 11 days after the Sewol ferry sank off South Korea, the country’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won, has resigned, taking responsibility for the tardy response to the sinking.

President Park Geun-hye accepted the prime minister’s resignation – her spokesperson said Mr Chung would remain in his position until the rescue operation has been completed.

More than 300 people have been confirmed dead or missing, many of them students from Danwon High School. Divers pulled 48 bodies from a single room of the sunken ferry. The Sewol sank on April 16th on its way to the southern resort island of Jeju from Incheon, west of Seoul. While the cause has yet to be determined the whole country is struggling to deal with the wider fallout from the tragedy.

The disaster has struck a profound psychological blow in South Korea – reports of crew members saving themselves while schoolchildren waited on board, wearing lifejackets, for instructions that never came, have shocked a country that prides itself on treasuring its children.


Successful economy
There is intense pride in the country’s remarkable rise from being one of the world’s poorest countries at the end of the Korean War in 1953 into one of the world’s most successful economies.

However, the ferry disaster is seen as exposing a lack of depth to the country’s economic growth. Many are used to reports of ferry disasters from developing countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, and are shocked this happened in South Korea.

On Saturday, thousands visited a memorial altar set up at a gym in Ansan, a city just outside Seoul, to pay homage to more than 110 Danwon high school students and teachers confirmed dead.

The road leading to the school is lined with yellow ribbons, and people all over the country are tying yellow bands to trees and lampposts.

The mourners laid white chrysanthemums in front of the portraits and nameplates of those students and teachers killed. The school has yet to learn the fate of more than 100 other students.

More than 100,000 have so far visited the altar. Students also paid respects to the deputy principal, who hanged himself after the sinking.

Mourners are posting virtual ribbons online on sites, as well as messages of condolence on Twitter and Facebook. So far, 15 of the Sewol ’s crew members have been detained for allegedly abandoning the ship without even trying to save the passengers. At the weekend, prosecutors raided the office of the vessel traffic service (VTS) on Jindo accused of neglecting its duty to monitor the ferry as it sailed.

They said VTS was unaware of the emergency situation for about 18 minutes while the ship lost its balance and was drifting.

Coast guard, navy and civilian divers continued to scour the third- and fourth-deck cabins where most of the missing are believed to remain trapped, the Yonhap news agency reported. Rescuers were prevented from entering many cabins due to strong currents and limited visibility.


Political fallout
The tragedy is causing major ructions in the government. “Watching the pain of the families who lost their loved ones and grief and anger of the people, I felt the prime minister should take responsibility,” Mr Chung told a press conference.

His resignation is expected to result in a reshuffle when the crisis has been dealt with, and has hit support for the ruling party before elections on June 4th.