South Korea’s prime minister resigned yesterday over the government’s handling of a ferry sinking that has left more than 300 people dead or missing, blaming “deep-rooted evils” in society for the tragedy.
The country’s executive power is largely concentrated in the president, so Chung Hong-won’s resignation appears to be symbolic. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said president Park Geun-hye would accept the resignation, but did not say when Chung would leave office.
Chung’s resignation comes amid rising indignation over claims by the victims’ relatives that the government did not do enough to rescue or protect their loved ones. Most of the dead and missing were high school students on a school trip.
Officials have taken into custody all 15 people involved in navigating the ferry Sewol, which sank on 16 April.
Chung was heckled by victims’ relatives and his car was blocked when he visited a shelter on an island near the site of the sinking a week ago. Yesterday, he gave his reasons for the resignation to reporters in Seoul.
“As I saw grieving families suffering with the pain of losing their loved ones and the sadness and resentment of the public, I thought I should take all responsibility as prime minister,” he said.
“There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong. I hope these deep-rooted evils get corrected this time and this kind of accident never happens again.”
Meanwhile, senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said that two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew who were detained on Saturday had been formally arrested.
Yang also said that a crew member called the ship’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine, as the ferry was listing, but declined to disclose whether the caller was the captain. Local media reported that the captain called for company approval of an evacuation. Prosecutors said they are analysing the content of communications between the ship and the company.
The arrested crew members are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need. Captain Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out.
Divers have recovered 188 bodies and 114 people are believed to be missing, although the government-wide emergency task force has said the ship’s passengers list could be inaccurate. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew.
The seven surviving crew members who have not been arrested or detained held non-marine jobs such as chef or steward.
Capt Lee told reporters after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for passengers’ safety in the cold, swift water. Crew members have also defended their actions.
Helmsman Oh Yong-seok, one of those arrested on Saturday, has said he and several crew members did their best to save people. He said that he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, rescuing six passengers stuck in cabins.
The ministry of oceans and fisheries said it would soon change ferry systems so that passenger, vehicle and cargo information is processed electronically. There is not only uncertainty about how many people were on the Sewol, but also a huge discrepancy regarding the amount of cargo it was carrying.
The ferry was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, according to an executive of the company that loaded it. That far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork.