JINDO (South Korea) — South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned yesterday over the government’s handling of a ferry sinking that has left more than 300 people dead or missing, blaming “deep-rooted evils” in society for the tragedy.
South Korean executive power is largely concentrated in the President, so Mr Chung’s resignation appears to be symbolic. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said President Park Geun-hye would accept the resignation, but did not say when Mr Chung would leave office.
The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the traditional holiday island of Jeju on April 16. Most of those missing or presumed dead are students and teachers on a field trip from the Danwon High School on the outskirts of Seoul.
Mr Chung’s resignation comes amid rising indignation over claims by the victims’ relatives that the government did not do enough to rescue or protect their loved ones. The students on board the Sewol had been told to stay put in their cabins, where they waited for further orders. The confirmed death toll yesterday was 187.
“Keeping my post is too great a burden on the administration,” a sombre Chung said in a brief announcement. “On behalf of the government, I apologise for many problems from the prevention of the accident to the early handling of the disaster.”
Mr Chung was heckled by victims’ relatives and his car was blocked when he visited a shelter on an island near the site of the sinking a week ago. Ms Park had also been booed by some relatives when she visited a gym where families of the missing were staying.
Yesterday, Mr Chung gave his reasoning for the resignation to reporters in Seoul: “There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong. I hope these deep-rooted evils get corrected this time and this kind of accident never happens again.’’
Tempers have frayed over the slow pace of the recovery and frequent changes in information provided by the government. South Korean media had reported the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education sent text messages to parents that “all Danwon High School students are rescued” in the hours after the disaster.
South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy and one of its leading manufacturing and export powerhouses, has developed into one of the world’s most technically-advanced countries, but faces criticism that regulatory controls have not kept pace.
Officials have taken into custody all 15 people involved in navigating the ferry Sewol that day. Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said yesterday that two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew who were detained on Saturday had been formally arrested. Eleven other crew members, including the captain, were arrested earlier.
The arrested crew members are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need. Captain Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out.
Mr Yang also said a crew member called the ship’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine, as the ferry was listing, but declined to disclose whether the caller was the captain. Local media reported that the captain called for company approval of an evacuation. Prosecutors said they are analysing the content of communications between the ship and the company.
Divers have recovered 188 bodies and 114 people are believed to be missing, though the government-wide emergency task force has said the ship’s passengers list could be inaccurate. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.
The seven surviving crew members who have not been arrested or detained held non-marine jobs such as chef or steward, said Mr Yang.
Despite bad weather, dozens of divers planned to continue underwater searches yesterday for the missing, said Mr Ko Myung-seok, a spokesman for the emergency task force. Mr Ko said the weather was worsening yesterday, with a high-seas advisory and rapid ocean currents.
Officials said on Saturday that divers had reached two large sleeping units in the ferry where many of the lost may lie dead. Large objects that toppled when the vessel tipped over and sank are believed to be keeping divers from reaching bodies in at least one of the two rooms.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said it would soon change ferry systems so that passenger, vehicle and cargo information is processed electronically. There is not only uncertainty about how many people were on the Sewol, but a huge discrepancy regarding the amount of cargo it was carrying when it sank.
The ferry was carrying an estimated 3,608 tonnes of cargo, said an executive of the company that loaded it. That far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork — 150 cars and 657 tonnes of other cargo, said the coast guard — and is more than three times what an inspector who examined the vessel during a redesign last year said it could safely carry.