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Tags: SKorea | ferry disaster

South Korean Premier Resigns as Anger Grows Over Ferry Sinking

South Korean Premier Resigns as Anger Grows Over Ferry Sinking
An April 27 news broadcast seen at Jindo gymnasium, where relatives of family members of the 'Sewol' ferry were waiting for developments, shows South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won announcing his resignation.

Sunday, 27 April 2014 10:31 PM EDT

South Korea’s premier resigned over the government’s handling of the nation’s worst maritime disaster in four decades, with divers still searching for bodies on the ferry that sank nearly two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won will stay in office until the government’s response to the ‘Sewol’ ferry sinking has concluded, according to presidential spokesman Min Kyung-Wook. Victims’ relatives shouted and threw water bottles at Chung as he visited them hours after the incident on April 16.

Chung’s resignation yesterday came after an opinion poll showed support for President Park Geun-Hye slipping and as newspaper editorials increasingly accuse the government of mishandling its response to the tragedy, including showing a lack of urgency during rescue efforts and giving out misleading information. South Korea holds metropolitan, provincial and municipal elections in June, including the capital Seoul.

“President Park may replace at least some of her ministers responsible for the accident ahead of the June elections, if not the entire cabinet,” said Lee Chul-Hee, an economist at Tongyang Securities Co. in Seoul. “Park will try to gain back supporters with economic success and clean politics.”

Park’s approval rating slipped to 57 percent as of April 25, down from as high as 71 percent on April 18, the day after she visited victims’ relatives near the site of the sinking, according to Seoul-based polling company Realmeter. Park’s ruling New Frontier or Saenuri Party held a 53.4 percent lead over the main opposition’s 26.9 percent in a poll conducted from April 14 to 18 that only partially reflects the ferry disaster.

Chung’s resignation should mark the “beginning of holding those involved accountable,” the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial today. “Given the gravity of the situation and the people’s anger, it will not be enough even if every member of the cabinet steps down.”

Chung’s resignation is unlikely to have a major impact on the election because voters angry at the government’s handling of the incident aren’t distinguishing between the political parties and the authorities, probably leading to lower turnout in June, according to Shin Yul, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Myongji University in Seoul.

“The resignation may slightly assuage public grief, so Chung was right to express his intention this week,” Shin said by phone. “It may tip the scales a bit, but in terms of the elections, this incident has been unfavorable to both parties because voters are angry with all public figures.”

Chung’s decision is “irresponsible,” Ahn Cheol-Soo, co- leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said in a televised briefing yesterday. The president should apologize for the government’s failures before demanding other officials quit to take responsibility, said Ahn, who campaigned against President Park before stepping aside prior to the 2012 general election.

The opposition Democratic Party joined Ahn’s smaller New Political Vision Party in March to bolster their position ahead of June’s local elections.

Park selected Chung, a former prosecutor, as prime minister in February 2013 after her first choice Kim Yong-Jun withdrew his candidacy over allegations of suspicious real estate dealings involving his family. In South Korea, the post is mainly representative, though Park pledged to bolster the role at the time of Chung’s nomination.

“I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the victims,” Chung said during a televised briefing yesterday. “I apologize to the nation for the government’s failure to prevent the ferry disaster and to handle the accident properly.”

There are also signs of tension at the scene of the ferry sinking, where divers have been hampered by strong currents and visibility of as little as 20 centimeters (8 inches) as they search the submerged 6,825-ton, five-deck vessel. More than half of the compartments accessible to passengers have been searched, Yonhap News reported, citing a regional chief for the nation’s Coast Guard.

The official death toll of 188 will probably rise to 302, as no survivors have been found since 174 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued on the day of the sinking. Seven divers are ill, mainly from decompression sickness, coast guard official Ko Myung-Suk said in a televised briefing from Jindo, near the site of the sinking. A total of 92 divers will search the fourth deck today, he said.

The briefing was interrupted by a volunteer diver protesting Ko’s comments from April 24 that the government would begin limiting access to volunteer divers because they were hampering rescue efforts. Most couldn’t handle strong currents and low visibility and some left after only taking photos, Ko said at the time.

More than two-thirds of the passengers on the Sewol belonged to a group of 339 students and teachers from Danwon High School, near Seoul. Across the country, spring festivals, concerts and other events have been canceled in a period of national mourning over the incident, Korea’s worst maritime disaster since the ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank in 1970, killing 323.

Almost 150,000 people have visited a memorial altar near the school in Ansan to offer their condolences, the Gyeonggi provincial government said yesterday.

“Everyone in the country has been shocked and saddened by the ferry disaster,” Chung said yesterday. “It’s been more than 10 days but there are still missing people.”

All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol survived the sinking. All have been arrested, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin said by phone from Mokpo yesterday. The captain, who was not on the bridge at the time of the incident, and 10 other crew members were arrested earlier and the final four were arrested over the weekend.

© Copyright 2023 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

South Korea’s premier resigned over the government’s handling of the nation’s worst maritime disaster in four decades, with divers still searching for bodies on the ferry that sank nearly two weeks ago.
SKorea, ferry disaster
Sunday, 27 April 2014 10:31 PM
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