South Korean Ferry Disaster Prompts President Park Geun-Hye To Disband The Coast Guard
In the wake of the South Korea ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people last April, President Park Geun-hye announced Monday that Guen-hye is disbanding the South Korea Coast Guard in favor of new investigative agencies. During a televised speech, Park stated that the Coast Guard had failed to complete its rescue operations after the incident, receiving widespread criticism from the country's citizens and the international community. A newly created safety agency will take over rescue operations, while police will handle the ongoing investigation of the disaster.
"The coast guard continued to get bigger in size but did not have enough personnel and budget allocated for maritime safety," Park said. "Training for rescue was very much insufficient."
The new reforms have to be approved by the National Assembly before they can be instated. An interim investigation concluded that the ferry was overloaded at the time of its sinking in the Yellow Sea, carrying three times the amount of cargo weight.
Park took full responsibility for the April 16 accident and issued a tearful apology to the nation, which is still mourning the loss of the 286 passengers, a majority of whom were high school students on a field trip to the island of Jeju. Another 18 passengers remain missing.
When the ferry began tilting in the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea April 16, the passengers were told via the ship's intercom to wait in their cabins even as the ferry began to tilt at harsher degrees. A 15-minute cell phone video released by the family of one deceased passenger shows a cabin full of high school students sitting on their bunk beds, wondering if they should don their life jackets or leave their rooms despite the crew's orders. Toward the end of the video, the students recorded their final words.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard footage shows the ferry's captain escaping the ship on an inflatable life raft with several other crew members. The captain, 69-year-old Lee Joon-seok, was arrested two days later and has been charged with murder along with three other crew members, chief prosecutor in the investigation Yang Joon-jin told CNN.
The ferry's crew members, the South Korea Coast Guard, and the national government were heavily criticized in the aftermath for failing to protect the safety of the passengers. According to reports, the captain waited more than half an hour to order evacuation, and initially told passengers to stay below deck. Lee defended his decision, stating he was worried about sending passengers into cold water with strong currents.
However, when the Coast Guard arrived, crew members were the first ones rescued — a fact that has disturbed the passengers' family members and international maritime experts. Park acknowledged this in her speech, stating:
As the President who should be responsible for people's life and security, I am sincerely apologizing to the people for having to suffer pain. The final responsibility for not being able to respond properly lies on me. ... As a President, I feel a sense of sorrow for not being able to protect them during their family trip.