President Park Geun-hye's latest attempt to soften her public image has backfired, as questions were raised over whether her meeting with an elderly woman at a memorial altar was a set-up.
The president was photographed on Tuesday with a woman she met at the mourning centre in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, which instantly gave the public the impression of her trying to comfort the relative of a victim. Later on, the woman was found to be a visitor from the neighborhood who was not related to any of the victims.
Cheong Wa Dae immediately denied reports and addressed concerns that it would aggravate the public's distrust in the government.
"This kind of false report causes distrust among people and divides them from the government," said presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook.
The woman also denied suspicions, saying she just talked to the president because she looked very concerned.
Suspicions about the meeting spread fast, with rumours circulating online that the woman was one of Park's loyal supporters. A news outlet even reported that the scene was planned ahead by Cheong Wa Dae and that the woman was asked to meet Park at the altar.
Others also raised questions about how the woman was able to reach Park without being interrupted by her security officers.
The controversy over Park's suspicious encounter also aggravated public anger toward the top office over its response to the Sewol ferry disaster. Amid the dissent against the government, her approval ratings fell to the 40 per cent range for the first time in a year, according to a polling firm.
The timing and place of Park's apology was also controversial. She visited the memorial altar but did not try to meet any grieving relatives of the victims. She only said a few words to victims' family members who were blocking her exit from the memorial, witnesses said.
Instead, she held a photo session with the elderly woman and hurried back to the presidential office, where she told top officials in a weekly Cabinet meeting that she was sorry for the people and felt heavy-hearted.
It was her first public apology after she was pressured by the main opposition party to apologise, but critics took issue with her decision not to offer an apology at the altar.
Despite her apology, Park has increasingly become the target of the public criticism. Victims' families protested that she lacked a display of sincerity. Media criticised her gesture as mediocre. The main opposition New Politics Alliance of Democracy also stepped up its attack that the president has not done enough to console the wounded hearts of the victims' families and the people.
Critics say her dull apology readdressed her image of a leader lacking the ability to communicate with the public. They say she failed to read what the public really wants from her ― a leader who embraces the pain and the suffering of the people before bringing up new measures to prevent another tragedy.
"It reignited the public outrage over Park's lack of communication with her people," said Yang Seung-ham, professor of political science at Yonsei University.
"The president should have started by solacing the angry hearts of the victims' family and the people, rather than showing the public how furious she was about the rampant corruptive ties between offices and the industry and that she would dismiss officials responsible of the accident," he said.