South Korea's President Apologizes For Ferry Disaster Response

South Korea's president announced plans to disband the coast guard, which has been criticized for its response to last month's ferry sinking. Renee Montagne talks to journalist Jason Strother.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And let's turn now to South Korea, where the country's president went on national television last night to apologize for a ferry disaster that left more than three hundred dead and missing. Most of those who died were teenagers out on a school trip.

President Park Geun-hye also made a rather dramatic announcement: She plans to completely disband South Korea's Coastguard.

While divers continue to look for bodies in the sunken ferry, prosecutors last week indicted 15 of the crew members - four, including the captain, on manslaughter charges.

And for more, we reached Jason Strother, a journalist based in Seoul. Welcome to the program.

JASON STROTHER: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, President Park has been under intense pressure since the ferry disaster, because many there blame her government for the ineffective response to that made this such a tragedy. I gather that speech last night was quite emotional.

STROTHER: Absolutely, Renee. The president was fighting back tears as she read from her almost 20-minute-long speech. She became very emotional when she was naming some of the victims, as well as the crewmembers who sacrificed their lives when that ship went down on April 16th. She's proposed making that day sort of Remembrance Day, and also establishing a memorial for all those high school students who died when the boat sank.

MONTAGNE: And what about this proposal she has to disband the coast guard? Why the coast guard in particular?

STROTHER: The coast guard, she says, acted irresponsibly, that they weren't prepared to handle this type of emergency, and thus more lives were lost. So she's handing over some of the responsibilities to the National Police Agency, but she also plans to create a new government agency, an emergency response division. Of course, this all has to be approved by the national assembly first. Already, the opposition party here has said that the government needs to go further to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.

MONTAGNE: You know, there is another issue that she promised to tackle, and it had to do with a revolving door between government regulators and shipping companies. How much of a problem is that?

STROTHER: Many South Koreans feel that cronyism and corruption could be at the heart of this whole disaster. Some retired bureaucrats have a reputation - like in any other country - of getting involved with some of the agencies they used to regulate. As the investigation continues into what caused the Sewol ferry to sink, there are reports that the boat was overloaded about three times its capacity, that modifications had been made so that it could carry more passengers. And somehow, this all escaped the eyes of the regulators. President Park, in her speech, said that, you know, she couldn't believe that the safety checks didn't take place before the ship set sail. So, she's proposing banning retired officials from getting involved in these types of economic interests.

MONTAGNE: So, finally, how have people reacted to President Park's speech last night?

STROTHER: I think reactions to President Park's speech are mixed. Ever since the ferry sank, the president's approval rating dropped by about 20 points. Many South Koreans still say that she is ultimately responsible for this disaster. And by pointing the finger at the coast guard, pointing the finger at the crew of the ship, she's really just diverting attention from other faults within her administration. Already, opposition politicians are saying that her apology was insufficient. And as far as the families of the victims go, they've been protesting out in front of the president's residence here in Seoul. There's not a whole lot probably that could soothe their torment.

MONTAGNE: Jason Strother is a freelance journalist, speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much.

STROTHER: Than you, Renee.

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