by Yoo Seungki
SEOUL, May 19 (Xinhua) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye made an official apology once again for one of the country's deadliest maritime disaster on Monday, vowing a reform in officialdom and safety response system.
"As president responsible for the people's lives and safety, I sincerely apologize for the pains the people have suffered," Park said in her first nationally televised statement to the nation. " The ultimate responsibility for failing to properly respond to this accident lies with me."
Park burst into tears after holding back to the last minute when she mentioned those who sacrificed their lives to save others, calling them "real heroes and hopes" of the country. The president proposed to erect a monument for the victims and designate April 16 as the National Safety Day.
Park made her apology for the accident four times since the 6, 825-ton passenger ferry Sewol capsized and sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on April 16, but it was the first time she offers an apology in the form of the national statement.
On the 34th day into search, 286 people have been confirmed dead and 18 others remain missing. No survivors have been reported since 172 people were saved from the ship and sea on the day the ferry sank.
Among the 476 passengers aboard the ill-fated ship were 325 high school students and 24 teachers on their way for a class trip. Deep sorrow swept over the entire country, driving millions of people to mourn the victims at the memorial altars nationwide.
Park said the coast guard's rescue operations actually failed in the ferry sinking accident, noting that after much contemplation, she reached a conclusion that the coast guard will be disbanded.
The Ministry of Security and Public Administration will focus solely on the task of public administrations, and the task of maritime guard and rescue will be transferred to the tentatively named "National Safety Office" that will be launched and serve as a control tower of rescue operations.
The task of marine transport control center from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries will also be moved to the National Safety Office, and the ministry will focus only on the task of fostering and protecting the maritime and fisheries industries, she said.
Mentioning the buzzword "Gwanfia" in Korean, or a bureaucratic Mafia, Park vowed strongly to sever the collusive links between bureaucrats and businessmen. She said this accident showed how such abnormal links could cause the catastrophic disaster.
The inveterate overloading and the lax safety checks were picked as one of the main causes of the ferry sinking. The Korean Register of Shipping and the Korea Shipping Association, which are responsible for the safety checks, have been filled with retired government officials.
Park said retired public servants will not be named as heads of organizations and agencies relating to regulations, licensing and safety supervisions, which have many rights and interests at stake.
The number of agencies where retired officials will be banned from getting a job will be raised, and the period of reemployment restriction for retired officials will be lengthened to three years from two.
Park also pledged to confiscate all the assets illegally acquired by the owner of the ship's operator, his family and close aides, saying the government will compensate first for the victims and offset the taxpayers' money later by impounding the illegal assets.
Yoo Byung-eon, the de facto owner of the ship operator Chonghaejin Marine, and his family have been suspected of setting up paper companies to gather slush funds and illegally transfer money abroad by embezzling corporate funds, which may link closely with the poor safety management of the ship operator. They have been also under suspicions of borrowing massive illegal loans from some financial institutions.
Prosecutors ordered Yoo to appear at the prosecutors' office last Friday for questioning, but he has disobeyed the order. Arrest warrant for Yoo's eldest son was issued last Monday after he disobeyed summons. Yoo's second son and eldest daughter, who now live abroad, have been evading investigations.
Park blamed the ferry's captain and sailors once again for fleeing the ship without efforts to evacuate passengers, calling their irresponsible acts as murder.
When the ship began tilting heavily to one side, the captain was not at the helm and the wheel was handed over to the third mate who controlled the ship in the notorious waters for swift currents for the first time.
Prosecutors indicted the captain, chief engineer, first and second mates of the ferry for several charges, including murder, attempted murder and violation of the maritime rescue law. They could face death penalty if convicted.
Other 11 survived sailors were charged with causing death by negligence and violation of the maritime rescue law, which could lead to as long as 45 years in prison.