S. Korea Prime Minister Resigns Over Ferry Disaster

South Korea's prime minister has resigned in order to take responsibility for the ferry disaster which killed around 300 people. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Anthony Kuhn about the fallout.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The Prime Minister of South Korea has resigned in order to take responsibility for the sinking of a ferry that left around 300 people, mostly high school students, dead or missing. The country has been in a state of mourning since the accident, and it's put heavy political pressure on the South Korean government. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing to talk about the latest developments. Anthony, the resignation is largely symbolic, since it's the president, not the prime minister, who holds the main power in South Korea, right?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: That is correct, Rachel. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has been the administration's point man on the ferry disaster. He headed the interagency team that went down there and took command. He offered his resignation to sort of take the heat for the administration. Prime Minister Chung has been harshly criticized by parents. When he went down there, people threw water bottles at him. They felt that if the government had acted faster, maybe some of their children could have been saved from that sunken ferry.

MARTIN: What did Prime Minister Chung say about his resignation?

KUHN: Well, he said some pretty average things like his presence was a drag on the administration. But I think what was really interesting, Rachel, was that he talked about irregularities and malpractices in Korean society that need to be rooted out. And he was addressing a sense in South Korea that this sort of thing, at base, was being caused by social ills and moral rot, that this was a completely avoidable accident.

You remember that President Park Geun-hye spoke to the effect that the crew actions of the ship were tantamount to murder. People felt that this company that ran the ferry had essentially killed these kids for money. And it harks back to an era about two decades ago when a lot of companies put profits ahead of safety. South Korea thought it had sort of finished this in the 1990s, and it's an unpleasant reminder of that age.

MARTIN: So at this point, are there more details coming out about what may have caused the ferry accident?

KUHN: The precise cause of the accident is still under investigation, but it's become clear that the ferry operators and the crew took some very questionable actions. Eleven members of the crew have been detained. The ferry company's owners have been barred from leaving the country. And just to sort of recap what we know, we know that this company reconfigured the boat. It added more rooms, which may have made it less stable.

They underreported the number of passengers, vehicles, and crew aboard. And of course, they gave the helm to an inexperienced crew member at a very vital time, and they failed to give the order to evacuate in time to get those students out.

MARTIN: And lastly, President Obama was in Seoul this past week as part of a bigger trip to Asia. How did President Obama address the ferry disaster?

KUHN: Well, it was tricky, because he had to do more than appear sensitive. He had to support an embattled administration. And that's what he did. He held a moment of silence for the victims during bilateral talks. He give a flag that was flying over the White House on the day of the disaster. He gave to the high school where most of these kids came from a magnolia tree. And it was descended from magnolia trees planted on the White House lawn by Andrew Jackson in the mid-1800s. It was a very personalized sort of gesture, and it was clearly appreciated by the South Koreans.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Thanks so much, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, Rachel.

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