South Korean President Park Geun Hye accepted her prime minister’s offer to resign over the government’s failure to properly handle the nation’s worst maritime disaster in four decades.
Prime Minister Chung Hong Won will stay in office until the government’s response to the ferry sinking has concluded, according to presidential spokesman Min Kyung Wook. Relatives of the ferry victims shouted and threw water bottles at Chung as he visited them hours after the incident on April 16.
“I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the victims,” Chung said during a televised briefing today. “I apologize to the nation for the government’s failure to prevent the ferry disaster and to handle the accident properly.”
Divers are still trying to retrieve bodies from the ‘Sewol’ ferry that sank in an area of strong currents off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The official death toll of 188 will likely 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.
Chung’s resignation comes after Park’s approval rating slipped to 57 as of April 25, down from as high as 71 percent on April 18, the day after she visited the site of the sinking, according to Seoul-based polling company Realmeter.
South Korea holds metropolitan, provincial and municipal elections in June, including the capital Seoul. The latest poll by Realmeter, conducted from April 14 to 18 and only partially reflecting the ferry disaster, shows Park’s ruling New Frontier or Saenuri Party leading the main opposition by 53.4 percent against 26.9 percent.
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 today. 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 before the 2012 general election.
The opposition Democratic Party joined Ahn’s smaller New Political Vision Party in March to bolster their position ahead of the local elections in June.
“What matters for President Park is how she handles the incident from now following Chung’s resignation,” Choi Chang Ryul, a professor of liberal arts at Yong In University south of Seoul and a political commentator, said by phone. “It can be positive if the government does well and the president shows sincerity after accepting his resignation.”
“They’ll face political headwinds if they don’t,” he said.
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 more representative than hands-on, though Park pledged to bolster the role at the time of Chung’s nomination.
High School Students
More than two thirds of the passengers on the Sewol were 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 138,000 people have visited a memorial altar near the school in Ansan to offer their condolences, the Gyeonggi provincial government said today.
“Everyone in the country has been shocked and saddened by the ferry disaster,” Chung said today. “It’s been more than 10 days but there are still missing people.”
Chung should have waited before offering his resignation, according to Seo Bok Kyung, a researcher at the Sogang University Institute of Political Studies in Seoul.
“More than 100 people are missing and there’s still much more remaining to be done,” Seo said by phone after Chung’s announcement. “As prime minister, he may have felt troubled by the government’s response but his decision was misguided.”
Divers have been hampered by strong currents and low visibility as they try to locate bodies on the sunken ferry, focusing on the fourth deck where passenger cabins are located.
All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol have been arrested, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin said by phone from Mokpo today. 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 overnight.
Investigators have said they are probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally, and whether it was carrying too much cargo, before it listed and sank. The joint team of coast guard and prosecutors is also investigating why the crew members left the vessel while passengers were still on board.
Newspaper editorials earlier this week reflected public anger at the government’s handling of the incident. “Does President Park finally understand the rage of people who say ‘we can’t trust bureaucrats?’” asked the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, one of the country’s three biggest and considered supportive of the president.
Park called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder.”
“There are too many irregularities and malpractices in parts of society that have been with us for too long, and I hope those are corrected so that accidents like this will not happen again,” Chung said today.