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South Korea Ferry Accident: Prime Minister Chung Hong-won Resigns Over Disaster Response

April 27, 2014

A diver jumps into the sea to look for people believed to have been trapped in the sunken Sewol ferry near buoys which were installed to mark the vessel in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Friday, April 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Yonhap)

South Korea's prime minister, Chung Hong-won, announced his resignation Sunday morning on national television after criticism of the government's response to the April 16 ferry disaster that killed more than 180 people.

On Sunday, he issued an extraordinary statement to reporters in Seoul on the national tragedy.

"As I saw grieving families suffering with the pain of losing their loved ones and the sadness and resentment of the public, I thought I should take all responsibility as prime minister," Chung said. "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."

Chung also apologized to families of the victims, many of whom were high school students on a field trip.

"I offer my apology for having been unable to prevent this accident from happening and unable to properly respond to it afterwards," he said during an emergency news conference in Seoul, Al Jazeera reports. "I believed I, as the prime minister, certainly had to take responsibility and resign."

Family member's tempers have frayed in the ten days since the disaster amid allegations that the ferry was overloaded with cargo and that students were told to stay in their cabins as the boat sunk. All 15 people involved in navigating ferry are now in custody after authorities on Saturday detained four more crew members, a prosecutor said.

South Korean executive power is largely concentrated in the president, Park Geun-hye, so the resignation offer by Prime Minister Chung Hong-won appears to be largely symbolic. There was no immediate word from Park about whether she would accept Chung's resignation. Earlier this week, President Park Geun-hye was booed by relatives of the missing when she visited a gym where families were staying, the Guardian reports. Chung was heckled by relatives and his car was blocked when he visited a shelter on an island near the site of the sinking a week ago.

The death toll rose to 187 Saturday, with as many as 115 still left inside the ship to be found by search crews ten days after the ship capsized. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.

Yang Jung-jin of the joint investigation team said two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew were taken in on preliminary arrest warrants issued late Friday. Eleven other crew members, including the captain, had been formally arrested earlier.

(MORE: 1,000 Still Missing 6 Months After Haiyan)

All are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need as the ferry Sewol sank April 16. The captain 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.

Helmsman Oh Yong-seok, one of those arrested Saturday, has said he and several crew members did their best to save people. He said that he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.

Officials in charge of the search effort said Saturday that divers have reached two large rooms where many of the lost may lie dead, but the search had to be suspended because of bad weather. Currents were already strong Saturday morning, as they were in the first several days of the search, when divers struggled in vain even to get inside the submerged vessel.

"This morning (the divers) did a primary dive, but because of the strong current they were losing their masks, so we have stopped the dive for now," Kim Jin-hwang, a South Korean navy official in charge of commanding the dive search, said in a briefing at Jindo. He said the search would resume once conditions improve, but it was unclear when that would happen.

The two rooms where searchers hope to find more of the missing soon are sleeping units designed for many people - one in the stern and one in the bow. Fifty students from Danwon High School in Ansan were booked into one of them. Students from the city near Seoul make up more than 80 percent of the dead and missing; they had been on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

Large objects that toppled when the ferry tipped over and sank are believed to be keeping divers from reaching bodies in at least one of the rooms.

"Many structures ... all fell down as the ship listed, and now are all buried on the left side. Because of the weighty objects it was impossible to entirely search the room," Kim said.

(MORE: A Horrific Rescue in the Pacific Northwest)

Frustrated relatives continued to demand answers for what caused the tragedy as scrutiny shifted to the ferry's cargo. According to the company that loaded it onto the ship, more than 3,600 tons of cargo were packed on a ferry that could only safely handle 1,000 tons, and needed more than 2,000 tons of water as ballast to keep it balanced.

A naval architect told the Associated Press that the large cargo could have tipped the ship with a sharp turn. Tracking data showed the ferry made a 45-degree turn before sinking, and crew members reportedly stated they attempted to make a much less severe turn.

"The ship would suddenly fall even with just a small turn. It should not make a sharp turn," said Lee Kyu Yeul, professor emeritus in ship and offshore plant design at Seoul National University's Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. "It should make a huge circle with 1 or 2 degrees of turn, but (the Sewol) made a small circle. So it fell."

Prosecutor Yang Jung-jin of the joint investigation team said Friday that the cause of the sinking could be due to excessive veering, improper stowage of cargo, modifications made to the ship and tidal influence. He said investigators will determine the cause of the accident by consulting with the experts and simulating.

Prosecutors have raided and seized documents at Korean Register of Shipping, which conducted the redesign inspection, and the Korea Shipping Association, which regulates and oversees departures and arrivals of domestic passenger ships, according to officials at both organizations who asked to be anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about matters under investigation.

On Jindo island, where families have been waiting for more than a week for word of their loved ones, Oceans and Fisheries Minister Lee Ju-young, coast guard chief Kim Seok-kyun and deputy chief Choi Sang-hwan on Friday morning were able to leave the tent where the families had kept them. The tent is where officials post information about the newly recovered dead.

Dozens crowded around the grim-faced officials, who sat on the ground and tried to explain the search efforts. One man threatened to punch reporters gathered near the tent. Relatives occasionally shouted, accusing the officials of lying about the operation.

"We are doing our work and we, too, feel the way you do," Kim said Thursday. "We are trying to bring all the equipment that we can."

The ferry sank April 16 on its way from Incheon port to the southern tourist island of Jeju. More than 80 percent of the 302 dead and missing are students from a single high school in Ansan, south of Seoul.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report


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