SEOUL - South Korea's president has announced plans to dismantle the nation's Coast Guard after a poor rescue response to the ferry disaster last month that killed more than 300 people.
Most of the victims were teenagers, and authorities are still trying to recover 18 bodies believed trapped aboard the capsized, sunken ship. The confirmed death toll stands at 286.
President Park Geun-hye said Monday South Korea's Coast Guard was insufficiently trained for rescue work when the Sewol passenger ferry sank on April 16 with 476 people on board.
In a live speech on national television, Park said with the Coast Guard's current structural problems, another big accident might not be prevented.
Therefore, the president said, the Coast Guard would be dismantled.
She says the government will move to strengthen professionalism and responsibility of those involved with coastal safety.
Park said the government will transfer the investigation and intelligence function of the Coast Guard to the National Police Agency, and the rescue and security function to a newly created Ministry of National Safety.
The victims' families have been extremely critical of nearly every aspect of the government's handling of the disaster, with some taking their protests to the doors of the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Many relatives believe some children may have survived for hours or even days inside air pockets in the capsized ferry, but died because rescuers took too long to access the submerged vessel.
Critical of Coast Guard change
Families of those who still remain missing criticized the shock decision to disband the Coast Guard, calling it an ill-timed, hasty move that would further dim hopes to find bodies of their relatives, the AFP reported.
"It is clear that (Park's) announcement will rattle Coast Guard officials and hamper ongoing search efforts," father of a missing teenager and the families' spokesman told reporters.
"We are in indescribable sorrow," he said, urging officials to continue search efforts "until the one last missing person is found."
Most of those who died when the five-story ferry sank off Korea's southwestern coast were high school students on a field trip.
Authorities were widely criticized for giving wrong information on the number of passengers and casualties, as well as a slow rescue response.
Education authorities initially told parents the students survived the sinking but reversed their comments within hours as the scale of the tragedy unfolded.
Distraught and frantic relatives of passengers rushed to Jindo island to watch rescue efforts.
About 170 passengers survived, but all were rescued on the first day.
Hopes for survivors turned to anger and grief as rescue divers struggled for days against rough seas to reach those trapped in the sunken ferry.
The Coast Guard chief and Prime Minister Chung Hong-won were in charge of the rescue operation.
Chung offered his resignation over the disaster last month.
A teary-eyed President Park on Monday issued another apology, echoing one made last week to parents of victims. She said that as president, she is responsible for lives and safety and offered a heartfelt apology for the pain people have suffered.
"The ultimate responsibility for the poor response to this accident lies with me," Park said in the televised address to the nation, during which she wept openly and twice bowed deeply in a display of contrition, the French news agency AFP reported.
She has voiced regret several times, but Monday's address was the first time she has explicitly accepted direct responsibility for what has become a defining moment of her presidency.
Most of the blame, however, is being directed at the ferry's captain, crew, and owners - the family that owns the ship under patriarch Yoo Byung-eun.
South Korean media report the 6,800-ton ferry was carrying three times as much cargo as allowed under safety rules and made a sharp turn just before it began to sink.
The captain and three crew members are facing manslaughter chargesarising from gross negligence for telling passengers to stay below in their cabins while they themselves were among the first to abandon ship.
"The irresponsible acts of the captain and crew members who abandoned hundreds of people are practically an act of murder," Park said, adding that existing legislation would be amended to provide harsher penalties for officials found responsible for such accidents.
The Yoo family is believed to be in hiding and refuses to appear for questioning. The family heads a Christian religious sect that since last week has been blocking police from searching its headquarters. The family's company, Cheonghaejin Marine, is suspected of corruption and tax evasion.
The Sewol tragedy has triggered a bout of intense soul-searching in a country that had, until now, taken enormous pride in its extraordinarily rapid transformation from a war-torn, impoverished backwater to Asia's fourth-largest economy.
Investigations into the disaster have suggested it was almost wholly man-made: the result of cut corners, regulatory violations, poor safety training and a woeful lack of oversight -- all, or nearly all, attributable to a desire to maximise profits.
"It is our duty to reform and transform the country so that these lives were not lost for nothing," Park said, pledging to address the corrupt culture of collusion between regulators and business, the AFP reported.
Some blame cultural norm
Some people have also blamed South Korea's culture of deferring to seniority, which has been blamed for past disasters such as airline crashes, for the high death toll in the ferry accident.
But political analyst Hwang Tae-soon at Seoul's Wisdom Center think tank said passengers were simply listening to those who were supposed to know best.
Hwang said it was not just the teenagers but also the adults who followed the directions of the captain and crew members, who were the professional experts on the ship. It is a totally separate matter, he said, from the culture of deferring to adults and authority.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report. Some information for this report provided by AFP.