President Park Geun-hye on Monday urged officials to seriously consider recovering the sunken ferry Sewol after collecting opinions from victims' families, experts and technical staff.
"If we come to a conclusion that salvaging the ship is possible technically, we will actively review recovering the ship by gathering opinions from the families of the missing people and from experts," she said at a meeting with senior secretaries, adding that relevant ministries and agencies have been conducting technical analyses of how to salvage the sunken ferry.
The president also expressed regret to families of the Sewol victims with the first anniversary of the April 16 tragedy drawing near.
The remarks came amid vehement criticism from the families of the missing passengers as well as opposition from some lawmakers in the ruling party.
Critics have claimed the government is dragging out vessel recovery efforts over concerns that the operation would reignite criticism over their botched response for the crisis, and provoke negative public sentiment ahead of the April 29 by-election.
Rep. Kim Jin-tae of Saenuri Party voiced concern via his Facebook that the cost of salvaging the vessel would be astronomical and that the process could cause casualties while lifting the ship to the surface. Experts said that salvaging the ship would cost more than 620 billion won ($560 million) and take more than a year.
Maritime Minister Yoo Ki-june also told a local media outlet that the government needs to conduct a public opinion poll before making a decision on the fate of the ship.
The chairman and the floor leader of the Saenuri Party, however, lashed out at them for hesitating to operate the plan, calling them "irresponsible."
"I think making a decision on matters like the salvaging the Sewol ferry through a public survey is an irresponsible act," said Saenuri chairman Kim Moo-sung.
The government announced last week a financial support programme to help the bereaved families of victims. The compensation plan as well as the recovery of the ship, however, are expected to face protests from some of the family members who have demanded to retrieve the bodies of the nine people who remain unaccounted for before rolling out the plans.
The 6,825-ton passenger ferry sank off the southwest coast on April 16 last year due to a heavy load and a rough current, leaving more than 300 passengers dead or missing. Most of the victims were high school students on a school excursion to the southern resort island of Jeju.