A tearful President Park Geun-hye offered a fresh apology Monday for the messed-up response to the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol, promising deep-cutting reforms to make South Korea a safer nation to live in, including dismantling the Coast Guard and creating a new safety agency.
The nationally televised address came about a month after the Sewol went down on April 16, leaving more than 300 people, mostly high school students, dead or missing and the entire nation grieving and wondering bitterly why more lives could not have been saved.
"As president responsible for the people's lives and safety, I offer a heartfelt apology for the pains the people have suffered," Park said during the address. "The ultimate responsibility for failing to respond properly to this accident lies with me."
Public anger has been running high amid criticism the government's response to the sinking was slow and in disarray, and that more lives could have been saved if it had been handled right. Cursory safety checks on the ship, insufficient safety training for the crew and other problems were also blamed.
The crisis dealt a blow to Park's leadership, sending her approval ratings tumbling to one of the lowest levels since she took office last year. Candlelight vigils mourning the victims have often turned into protests against Park and her government.
Park has also apologized several times, but she has been under pressure to make a new apology as the previous apologies were indirect and not formal enough because they came during a Cabinet meeting, a luncheon meeting with a group of religious leaders and in a speech at a Buddha's birthday ceremony.
Tears welled up in Park's eyes at the end of the address as she called out the names one by one of the teachers and crew members who were killed while trying to save other people during the sinking, as well as a rescue diver who died during operations to search the sunken ship.
"I believe they are the true heroes of our times," she said, her voice choked up with emotion and tears running down her cheeks.
Park unveiled a package of remedies to upgrade safety standards and end corruption undermining them, including a decision to dismantle the Coast Guard for responding poorly to the disaster. She said its duties and responsibilities will be transferred to other agencies, including the ministry of national safety to be established.
"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 sacrifices," she said. "Rescue efforts of the Coast Guard virtually failed."
Investigation-related duties of the Coast Guard will be transferred to the National Police Agency while maritime safety, rescue and guard responsibilities will be handed over to the national safety ministry, Park said. The envisioned ministry will also take over maritime safety duties from the maritime ministry and the home affairs ministry, she said.
Park sees the accident as a combination of long-running irregularities and corruption deeply rooted in many corners of South Korean society, such as belittling and overlooking safety regulations for the sake of cost-cutting and efficiency, and collusive ties between regulators and businesses.
Last week, she also said that South Korea's quick economic development left the country obsessed with materialism and an emphasis on convenience over safety, leading to the creation of "abnormal systems, practices and culture" that are now threatening the country.
On Monday, she pledged to end such ill practices and corruption undermining safety.
"This accident showed how big a calamity can be brought about by the abnormal practice of collusion between the government and civilians" and the deep-rooted culture of putting personal and other relations ahead of official duties, Park said.
She vowed to overhaul the bureaucracy to end such practices as retired government officials landing jobs designed to look after interests of businesses. The practice was blamed for fostering cozy ties between regulators and businesses and contributing to sloppy safety checks on the Sewol.
Park said she won't appoint government officials to lead organizations and agencies that are charged with overseeing safety regulations and are prone to corruption. The government will also toughen restrictions on government officials taking jobs related to their duties after retirement, she said.
Such officials have been denounced as "bureaucratic mafia."
"In order to end the harmful effects of bureaucratic mafia and fundamentally reform the bureaucracy, I will carry out renovations from the point of appointment and to the point of retirement to make the bureaucracy more open and equipped with expertise," Park said.
Park also proposed that the National Assembly enact a special law authorizing the establishment of a fact-finding committee to be charged with looking into all suspicions of corruption and other irregularities related to the ferry disaster.
"The Sewol's sinking will be recorded as a hard-to-remove wound in our history," she said. "However, if we build a truly safe Republic of Korea, it can also be recorded as a new history. I believe such heavy responsibilities are given to all of us."
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, May 19 (Yonhap)