S. Korea president cuts coast guard as pressure on government mounts

President Park Geun-hye apologized on national television Monday. There are questions over how the coast guard, which is still running a search mission at the ferry, will be dismantled. 

Ahn Jung-won/Yonhap/AP
South Korean President Park Geun-hye bows after delivering a speech to the nation about the sunken ferry Sewol at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 19, 2014.

South Korea President Park Geun-hye took an unconventional step Monday to address bitter criticism in the wake of a ferry boat disaster than killed more than 300: the dismantling of the country’s coast guard.

President Park, accepting “ultimate responsibility” in a nationally televised address, revealed a controversial plan for dismantling the coast guard for failing to act swiftly after the Sewol ferry capsized more than a month ago off the southwestern coast.

Anti-government critics attacked her plan to transfer disaster relief at sea to the national police agency and then to a super-agency, not yet formed, as a defense against mounting attacks on her and her conservative Saenuri Party. 

The criticism appears certain to grow in the run-up to elections on June 4 for the governors of provinces and mayors of large independent cities, including Seoul. One poll shows Park’s popularity declining from 53 percent before the tragedy to about 38 percent. 

At the heart of the criticism is that Park is doing too little too late to rectify longstanding abuses that are now blamed for creating conditions for disaster. The tragedy has ignited a national debate over issues not only of basic safety and security, but of collusion between political figures and tycoons anxious to elevate their bottom lines.

Park Kwang-on of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the leading opposition party, described the president's response as “insufficient” and “inappropriate” – a constant refrain in recent protests.

A broad cross-section of South Koreans, regardless of political affiliation, agree with the criticism.

“Her speech is more than disappointing,” says Ahn Yong-jin, an office worker, after watching Park speak. “It’s hopeless. She’s not doing much about anything – just talking.” While much of what she said is “welcome,” he says, “people are too angry to change their minds about her and her government.” 

One question was how and why Park would dismantle the coast guard, which is still leading the search for missing bodies. Divers have found 286 bodies from among 476 people on the vessel. Only 172 people on board, including most of the crew, were rescued before it slipped beneath the choppy waves.

In Jindo, the island near which the ferry went down, a spokesman for families of the final 18 missing bodies asked if she were “seriously determined to find all to the last one.” Yonhap, the Korean news agency, quoted the spokesman as saying her plan would “rock the coast guard and hamper ongoing search operations.”

Cozy corporate ties 

Park in her address promised to get to the bottom of a system in which gift- and favor-giving, family connections, and complex relations between private interests and government agencies are essential to doing business.

Officials from the company that owned the Sewol are suspected of having paid off inspectors. The company president and three staff members are under arrest. Their trials are expected to be just as important as those of the captain, chief engineer, and two mates who face charges of negligent homicide. Eleven other crew members are also accused of negligence. 

The ship for years routinely carried three times the authorized load of vehicles and cargo containers from the west coast port of Incheon, near Seoul, down the coast to the scenic island of Jeju, its destination on its final voyage. 

As investigators sift through the records of the ferry company, its owner, his family members, and business contacts, Park said the accident revealed “the abnormal practice of collusion between the government and civilians.” She vowed “to end the harmful effects of bureaucratic mafia” and “make the bureaucracy more open and equipped with expertise.”

Aside from getting rid of the coast guard, however, she did not say how she would conquer these problems other than recommend a national assembly committee investigate all the company's dealings that appeared suspect.

A spokesman for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a powerful organization that claims more than 600,000 members, pointed out that Park had nothing to say about the recent easing of rules and regulations for business and industry. Deregulation, he said, was responsible for the disaster.

While avoiding such contentious issues, Park matched the emotionalism of millions of Koreans as she listed the names of the crew members, teachers, and one diver who perished while trying to rescue the victims.

Tears rolling down her cheeks, she said “they are the true heroes of our times.” With that, she ended her remarks without taking questions.

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