Global Politics

South Korea's president goes on national TV to apologize for the ferry disaster

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Credit: South Korean National TV

South Korean President Park Geun-hye tearfully apologised for the mishandling of last month's Sewol ferry disaster. She announced that the widely-criticised national coastguard will be disbanded.

There's throwing yourself on your sword, and then there's what South Korea's president did Monday in response to last month's Sewol ferry disaster that killed some 300 people — mostly high school students.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

President Park Geun-Hye, with tears rolling down her face, went on national TV to apologize — and make changes she says will keep such disasters from happening in the future. For starters, she vowed to dismantle the country's coast guard. Park has been facing mounting criticism for how her government responsed to the disaster.

Reporter Jason Strother in Seoul says this overflow of emotion from President Park is so far not playing well with South Koreans.

"This is a problem that has been plaguing Park Geun-Hye ever since she came into the political sphere a decade ago, that she's a bit of an ice queen, that she can't relate to the ordinary person. She did seem genuinely choked up when she was saying the names of some of the heroes from the day the ferry sank, including a crewmember who helped give life preservers to some of the students aboard to make sure they got off before she did, and died," he says. "Still, despite the tears and the long, 23-minute apology, many people here don't buy it." 

The apology is a social necessity in South Korean culture, Strother points out. In South Korean politics or in business, the person at the top — whether it’s the CEO or in this case the president — often takes full responsibility for whatever went wrong. But Strother says the public reaction so far to this apology has not been so good.

"Ever since the Sewol ferry sank over a month ago, the president's approval rating has plunged, and that's in part due to the perception that her administration, including the coast guard and other rescue officials, botched the whole attempt from the start," he says.

Families of some of the victims questioned the president's apology at a press conference a short time later. “Has the president already given up hope for finding the bodies of the dozen or so victims still unaccounted for by slandering the Coast Guard like this?" one person said at the press conference. "Is this going to cause the divers who are still on the scene now to lose morale and give up the search?"

In short, Strother says neither President Park's tearful apology nor her decision to re-assign the coast guard's investigative powers to the South Korean police agency while creating a new agency to deal with national emergencies is going over too well. He points out South Korea's coast guard did a lot more than just responding to emergencies.

“Some of the biggest roles it played in the past include chasing away Chinese fishermen that have encroached into South Korean waters, so the concern is that by disbanding the coast guard, it's going to leave holes in other places that the coast guard used to take care of," Strother says.

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