SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye took tearful responsibility Monday for the mishandling of last month's Sewol ferry disaster, admitting that many lives were lost through incompetence and a lack of preparedness.
"The ultimate responsibility of the poor response to this accident lies with me," Park said in an address to the nation, during which she openly wept and twice bowed deeply before the television cameras in a display of contrition.
Park's popularity ratings have been hammered by the April 16 disaster that claimed around 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.
She has voiced regret several times, but Monday's address was the first time she has explicitly accepted direct responsibility for what has become a defining moment of her presidency.
"As the president responsible for the lives and safety of South Koreans, I offer my sincere apology for all the suffering," she said.
Towards the end of her 30-minute address, Park's voice choked with emotion and tears ran down her cheeks as she described the heroic actions of some of the victims who died trying to save others.
Her comments highlighted the failure of the coastguard's immediate response to the tragedy, and acknowledged the complaints of the victims' relatives that many more lives might have been saved.
"I have decided to dismantle the coastguard," she said, adding that its investigative activities would be taken up by the police and its maritime patrol operations will be handed over to a newly created ministry of national safety.
The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people when it capsized and sank off the southern coast on April 16.
The confirmed death toll stood at 286 on Monday, with 18 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.