In an emotional televised address, South Korea’s president has said sorry for last month’s ferry disaster in which around 300 passengers, most of them schoolchildren, died.
She formally accepted responsibility for the sinking and vowed sweeping reforms to improve safety, saying the coastguard would be disbanded as it had failed in its rescue mission.
“The coastguard got bigger in size but did not have enough personnel or a sufficient budget allocated for maritime safety, and there was a lack of training for lifesaving,” said President Park Geun-hye, who cried in what was her first national TV address since the ferry Sewol capsized and sank with 476 passengers and crew on board.
At least 286 people were killed and 18 remain missing. Only 172 people were rescued, with the rest presumed to have drowned.
Of the passengers, 339 were children and their teachers on a field trip from a high school on the outskirts of Seoul.
The coastguard was accused of being slow and ineffective. A new emergency safety agency will take over its rescue duties.
Park also vowed sweeping reforms to improve oversight, as well as tough punishment for bureaucrats and businesses whose negligence endangers public safety.
Some of the crew, including the captain, were caught on videotape abandoning ship while the children were repeatedly told to stay put in their cabins and await further orders.
All 15 surviving crew members were indicted, including the captain and three senior colleagues on manslaughter charges. The remaining 11 crew were indicted for negligence.
The prosecution says the ferry was structurally defective after a remodeling to add capacity and was massively overloaded with cargo. A sharp turn then caused it to list and capsize.
Park, who is in the second year of a single five-year term, has apologised in person to many family members of the victims but her administration has faced continued criticism and nationwide anger for its handling of the disaster
Her popularity has plummeted and critics say that for victims’ families, her apology and pledges are too little, too late.