Embattled Park attempts to move on from Sewol tragedy

Embattled Park attempts to move on from Sewol tragedy
South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.

President Park Geun-hye offered a fresh public apology Monday over the Sewol ferry disaster and vowed to carry out drastic reform measures to enhance the nation's safety standards.

Her 24-minute speech, delivered with expressions of anger, determination and grief, was seen as a desperate attempt to overturn the worsening public sentiment toward her.

With her voice choked with emotion and tears running down her face, Park held herself "ultimately responsible" for the disaster and vowed to reform the country's safety system at all costs.

The president had apologised to the people for the government's poor response at several events since late last month, but her apologies were criticised as being informal and reluctant. The families of the victims charged that her past apologies were nothing but words. The media branded them as mediocre, and the main opposition party said her attitude was not sincere enough to embrace the pain of the people over the disaster.

Monday's address was her fifth apology, but was the first delivered in a separate setting specifically prepared for the announcement.

The embattled leader seemed to have spent a few weeks carefully choosing her words.

The address was politically important for her. With local elections less than two weeks away, the ruling party has been struggling to shore up voter support. She needed to regain public confidence to carry out sweeping public sector reforms and economic innovation, and to prepare for the peaceful unification that she announced earlier this year.

In an apparent attempt to drag her and her government out of its biggest crisis so far, Park made a surprising decision. The president said she would dismantle the 61-year-old Coast Guard and reorganise the ministries of security and maritime affairs, which she re-launched as part of her government reorganisation plan to push ahead with her major state agenda aimed at enhancing the public security and maritime affairs development last year.

"The Coast Guard failed to fulfil its original duties in the Sewol accident. Had it actively carried out rescue efforts immediately after the accident, it would have been possible to greatly reduce (the number of) lives lost," she said. "The rescue efforts of the Coast Guard almost completely failed."

She also proposed enacting special laws or revising existing ones to crack down on suspicious business ties between government officials and businesses, and toughen punishment of businesses that threaten customers' safety in pursuit of profits.

Park, however, did not mention any plans to reshuffle her cabinet.

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