Park will dismantle Coast Guard

May 19, 2014
President Park Geun-hye sheds tears towards the end of her televised speech from Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, while naming those who performed heroic acts in the April 16 Sewol ferry sinking.  (Korea Times)

President Park Geun-hye sheds tears towards the end of her televised speech from Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, while naming those who performed heroic acts in the April 16 Sewol ferry sinking. (Korea Times)

Two agencies to be launched; April 16 named as Safety Day

By Kang Seung-woo

President Park Geun-hye made a televised apology to the nation Monday for the flawed emergency response to the April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry, holding herself ultimately responsible.

Park also unveiled plans to revamp the national safety system and other reforms, highlighted by her intention to abolish the Korea Coast Guard.

“As the president who is responsible for the life and safety of the people, I truly apologize for all the suffering inflicted upon them,” Park told the nation from Cheong Wa Dae. None of her senior staff were present, breaking the usual protocol.

She said that two agencies responsible respectively for safety and government reform will be launched soon, while designating April 16 as National Safety Day.

The address came as the Park administration and the ruling Saenuri Party face escalating criticism for their mishandling of the capsized ferry Sewol ahead of the June 4 local elections.

More than 300 people died or were listed as missing, most of them high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island and Park has seen her approval rating plunge by nearly 20 percentage points since the accident.

As part of overhauling the country’s safety system, Park said she will disband the Coast Guard for its failed rescue operation and create a safety agency to deal with maritime disasters. Its investigation and information roles will be transferred to the National Police Agency (NPA).

“Had the Coast Guard taken quicker and more active rescue operations, the number of casualties would have been smaller,” Park said. “In fact, its rescue efforts failed.”

She added that the current Coast Guard would not be able to prevent another disaster.

Park also said the safety agency would take over maritime traffic control responsibilities from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and safety and security responsibilities from the Ministry of Safety and Public Administration.

The ongoing investigation into the sinking found that the vessel was overloaded due to false reporting of the cargo it carried.

Before the accident, the ferry often carried much more cargo than allowed, but no one in supervisory positions stopped it due to cozy relations between shipping companies and their supervisors.

Park stressed that it was important to eradicate abnormal practices, such as reserving plum jobs for retired civil servants in the firms they had supervision over.

“This accident showed how big a calamity can be brought about by the abnormal practice of collusion between the government and civilians and the deep-rooted culture of putting personal and other relations ahead of official duties,” Park said.

The Korea Shipping Association, a lobbying group for the shipping industry, has the right to inspect the safety of vessels and retired government officials have taken up positions in the association.

“Given that there are collusive ties between the supervisory authorities and the regulated shipping industry, it is clear that safety inspection cannot be properly carried out,” said the president.

In order to prevent the harmful effects of a bureaucratic mafia, Park said the government would not appoint government officials to positions charged with supervising safety regulations and there will be tougher restrictions on former government officials taking up jobs related to their duties.

“I will carry out renovations from the appointment of government officials and their retirement to make the bureaucracy more open and equipped with expertise,” she said.

Park also proposed that the National Assembly enact a special law authorizing the establishment of a fact-finding committee to be charged with looking into all suspicions of corruption and other irregularities related to the ferry disaster, as demanded by a delegation of the victims’ family members during their meeting with Park on Friday at Cheong Wa Dae.

“If necessary, the appointment of a special prosecutor is an option to reveal the truth of the accident and to punish those who are responsible,” she said.

She also criticized Chonghaejin Marine, the sunken ferry operator, for its “greedy” pursuit of profits, saying the government would seek to force the company to return its ill-gotten profits to the victims.

Finally, in order to honor the victims, Park proposed designating April 16 as a day to emphasize the importance of safety and erecting a monument to them.

Meanwhile, Park flew to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to attend a ceremony marking the installation of a Korean-built nuclear reactor at a power plant under construction there.

During her visit, Park will visit the Akh Unit that has been stationed there since 2011. The 150-troop unit helps train the Middle East nation’s special operations forces.