S. Korean PM to quit over ferry sinking
PRIME Minister Chung Hong Won, the No. 2 official in the South Korean government, apologised and offered to resign yesterday as the country remained angry and saddened over the sinking of a ferry that left 302 people, a vast majority of them high school students, dead or missing.
The government has come under fire as early investigations revealed a slew of loopholes in safety measures and lax regulatory enforcement that investigators said contributed to the sinking of the ferry, the Sewol, on April 16.
It was also criticised for failing to respond quickly and efficiently to the crisis and for fumbling during the early stages of rescue operations.
A sombre Mr Chung accepted the criticism yesterday when he offered "an apology to the people" during a nationally televised news conference.
"When I saw the people's sadness and fury, I thought it was natural for me to step down with an apology," he said.
Mr Chung would be the highest-ranking government official to lose his job over the sinking, South Korea's worst disaster since 1995, when a department store collapsed in Seoul, killing 501 people.
South Koreans were especially traumatised because most of the dead and missing were students on a class trip.
Many survivors reported that the crew repeatedly instructed passengers to stay inside while the ship was listing dangerously and gradually sank off the south-eastern coast of South Korea.
The ship's captain, Lee Jun Seok, 69, and 14 other crew members escaped from the ferry on the first two Coast Guard ships that arrived at the scene. All of them are now under arrest on criminal charges, including accidental homicide.
Mr Chung's resignation will become official when President Park Geun Hye accepts it. Ms Park has decided to accept Mr Chung's resignation but only after the government finishes the entire rescue and salvage operation, her spokesman said.
The prime minister's post is largely ceremonial, with the executive power concentrated in the presidency. The prime minister is sometimes fired when the government needs to take responsibility for a major scandal or policy failure.
As of yesterday morning, 115 ferry passengers remained missing. The number of the survivors, 174, has not changed for the past 11 days.
The official death toll stood at 187 yesterday, where it has remained because of bad weather.
Divers trying to reach the inside of the ship have been stymied by strong waves and rapid currents.
Once inside, they face the more challenging task of making their way through narrow corridors clogged with debris to try to reach small cabins in the front and a large communal sleeping hall in the back of the ship, where many of the students are believed to have been trapped.
The nation has been plunged into a paroxysm of grief and shame. Loud cheering at baseball stadiums has been banned and television comedy programmes suspended. Schools cancelled their spring-break trips.
When thousands of Buddhists paraded through downtown Seoul on Saturday evening, ahead of the Buddha's May 6 birthday, many of them carried black-and-white lotus lanterns in memory of the dead.