S Korea president apologises to ferry disaster relatives

S Korea president apologises to ferry disaster relatives
South Korean president Park Geun-hye (R) shakes hands with a family member of victims onboard sunken passenger ship Sewol after their face-to-face talk at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, in this May 16, 2014 photo.

SEOUL - President Park Geun-Hye made a direct apology Friday to relatives of the victims of South Korea's ferry disaster and vowed to reform the country's safety standards from scratch.

"I apologise again for the government's insufficient response," Park said at a meeting with 17 relatives who were invited to her presidential office.

It was the first time she has made an expression of regret directly to the victims' families, who had criticised a previous apology she issued during a cabinet meeting as impersonal.

"I will push for fundamental reform of the safety system of our society to prevent the recurrence of a similar disaster," Park told them.

Before the meeting, the families issued a statement urging Park to set up an independent investigation into the sinking and punish those responsible for the disaster.

The relatives have been extremely critical of nearly every aspect of the government's handling of the disaster.

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

The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people when it capsized and sank on April 16. So far, 284 people have been confirmed dead, with 20 still unaccounted for.

Of those on board, 325 were children from a high school on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.

The Sewol's captain and three crew members were charged Thursday with manslaughter through gross negligence.

Five Chonghaejin officials have already been arrested for possible criminal negligence, and the investigation has widened to the family that controls the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co.

On Friday prosecutors sought an arrest warrant for Yoo Byung-Eun, the reclusive patriarch of the family after he failed to submit to an official summons.

A religious leader, photographer and billionaire businessmen once convicted of fraud, Yoo has a colourful and checkered past.

Although he has no direct stake in the ferry operator, his sons control it through a complex web of holding companies.

The 73-year-old's whereabouts are unclear, and there are concerns that efforts to enforce a warrant could trigger a volatile showdown with a splinter church group, of which Yoo is a founder-member.

Hundreds of followers of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea are currently holed up in a compound in Anseong south of Seoul, and hundreds more are expected to join them over the weekend.

There are suspicions that Yoo may be in the compound, and the church followers have blockaded themselves in and warned against any police effort to force entry.

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