South Korea prime minister tenders his resignation over ferry response

Amid criticism of the government’s response to the ferry disaster on April 16, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won announced his offer to resign on Sunday. (Reuters)

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered to resign Sunday, taking responsibility for “a slew of problems” that both enabled and worsened the severity of a ferry sinking that has left more than 300 dead or missing.

The position of prime minister in South Korea is largely ceremonial: Power is concentrated around President Park Geun-hye. But in the aftermath of the ferry’s sinking on April 16, the government has faced withering criticism because of lax safety regulations and a slow rescue response.

“I’d like to apologize for the mishandling of a slew of problems, from preventive measures before the accident to the government’s initial response and follow-up steps over the accident,” Chung said at a Sunday news conference, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told the Associated Press that Park would accept the resignation, but did not say when Chung would leave office.

The Sewol ferry sank while overloaded with cargo, and prosecutors say the boat could have also been rendered top-heavy by renovations made by the operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Co. In the hours after the disaster, officials badly overstated the number of rescued, saying there were 368 survivors, not 174.

“Witnessing the pains of families of the victims and grief and anger of the people, I think the right thing for me to do is to take all responsibility and resign,” Chung said.

Once all missing bodies are recovered from the vessel — submerged in the Yellow Sea — the disaster will become South Korea’s deadliest since a department store collapse 19 years ago. Though some public ire has been directed at the captain and crew of the vessel, who fled quickly from the ship with hundreds still aboard, confidence in the South Korean government also has sharply abraded.

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, when Chung visited relatives of passengers on board, he was booed and doused with water. Park, who took power early last year, later faced some jeers as well. In the past several days, Park’s approval rating has plummeted 15 percentage points, to 56.5 percent, according to survey agency Realmeter.

Chung had been in charge of a pan-government team responsible for handling the disaster. Early last week, Chung had also pledged to devise a “master plan” to improve public safety. Ahn Cheol-soo, co-leader of South Korea’s main opposition party, called Chung’s offer of resignation “utterly irresponsible” and “cowardly.”

South Korean prime ministers have occasionally stepped down in the past when the government is under fire. Park’s office said the president will accept Chung’s resignation offer, but he will leave his post only after the ferry disaster has been brought under control.

Chung would become the highest-ranking official to lose his job since the sinking, but not the first. A senior official in the Ministry of Security and Public Administration resigned last week after attempting to take a callous photo in front of a signboard showing ferry victims’ names.

The Sewol ferry was traveling from Incheon to Jeju when it sank off the southwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. Most of those on board were high school students planning a four-day field trip. As the ferry listed, passengers were instructed by crew to stay put, rather than evacuating. Some of the survivors have said they escaped the vessel only because they ignored orders.

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