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S. Korea President Accepts PM's Resignation

  • Daniel Schearf

FILE - South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, October 2013.

FILE - South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, October 2013.

South Korean President Geun-hye's office says she will accept her prime minister's resignation, but not until the Sewol ferry disaster has been brought under control.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation earlier Sunday, following a public uproar over his government's response to the April 16 ferry disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing.

A somber-looking Chung announced his resignation in a brief televised address Sunday morning, saying "keeping my post is too great a burden on the administration." The prime minister's position in South Korea is largely ceremonial, with the president wielding most of the power.
A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol is consoled by a Buddhist nun, left, as she waits for news on her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea, Apr. 26, 2014.

A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol is consoled by a Buddhist nun, left, as she waits for news on her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea, Apr. 26, 2014.

Chung said he would like to offer an apology to the people as a representative of their government. He said the government could not solve many problems that occurred in the process of preventing the incident, the initial response, and in controls afterwards.

12 days since sinking

The 5-story ship, the Sewol, capsized on April 16th southwest of mainland South Korea with 476 people on board and quickly sank.

Most were teenagers on a trip organized by their high school, just south of Seoul, to the resort island of Jeju.

Authorities were severely criticized for what many saw as a slow and poorly coordinated initial response to the disaster.

Inaccurate information on the numbers of rescued, passengers and missing made matters worse for already distraught parents.

Education authorities initially indicated most of those on board the sinking ship were rescued before corrections revealed the scale of the loss.

Hundreds of rescue divers were deployed but were hampered by weather, strong currents and poor visibility. Relatives of those on board, hoping for survivors, watched helplessly as it took days to get divers inside the sunken ship.

Bodies were still slowly being recovered more than a week later as bad weather continued to plague recovery efforts.

PM accepts blame

Prime Minister Chung, along with the Coast Guard chief, was in charge of the rescue operation. He says his resignation would be a sensible way to offer the people of South Korea an apology.

He said he should be responsible as a prime minister. He saw the pain of the families of victims who writhed in agony from losing their loved ones and the sorrow and anger of their people.

During separate visits to a gym on Jindo island housing the relatives, angry parents pounced on the prime minister and heckled the president.

Opposition politicians criticized the prime minister's offer to resign as irresponsible and demanded President Park be the one to apologize.

But most of South Korea's outrage is directed at the captain and crew in charge of steering the ship. They have been arrested and charged with negligence and violating maritime law for telling passengers to stay put and then later saving themselves.

It is still not clear what caused the ferry to sink. Investigators are looking into many possibilities including an alleged sharp turn, design or repair flaws, or overweight cargo.

Prime Minister Chung last week announced plans for a safety overhaul to prevent similar disasters.

He is not the only official to take a fall from the ferry disaster.

A Coast Guard official was removed from duty for remarks deemed insensitive to relatives of victims. Another official was fired for taking photos of worried relatives.

Resignations by prime ministers are not uncommon in South Korea. The mainly ceremonial nature of the post makes it convenient for prime ministers to take the blame during political crises.

The last prime minister to resign was Chung Un-chan under the previous president Lee Myung-bak. He twice in 2010 offered to step down for the party's defeat in regional elections and a then again for failing to stop an administrative relocation to a town south of Seoul.
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