SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's president pledged Monday to disband the coast guard amid mounting criticism of its failure to save hundreds of passengers trapped last month in a sinking ferry. Critics said President Park Geun-hye was trying to shift attention from her mishandling of one of South Korea's deadliest disasters in decades.
The country's coast guard is a nonmilitary agency and does not patrol the maritime frontier with North Korea, which is done by the navy. Still, a move to abolish the independent coast guard in a peninsula country surprised many.
The agency has faced withering criticism that it acted slowly and unprofessionally in botched rescue and search efforts. The April 16 sinking has left more than 300 people dead or missing.
Park's first televised address to the nation since the sinking began with a deep bow and ended with her tearfully reading the names of passengers and crew who died trying to save others. With her approval ratings plummeting ahead of mayoral and governor elections in about two weeks, the speech sought to acknowledge widespread anger over government failures as well as chart a path forward.
Most of the victims were students from a high school near Seoul who were traveling to the southern tourist island of Jeju.
"We failed to rescue students who we could have saved," Park said. "The ultimate responsibility for not properly dealing with this incident is mine."
But Park also held the coast guard responsible for the high death toll. She called the coast guard's rescue work a failure and said swifter, more aggressive action in the initial stages of the sinking could have saved more lives.
Park said she would push for legislation aimed at transferring the coast guard's responsibilities to the National Police Agency and a new government safety agency that she plans to establish. The new agency would also take over maritime traffic controlling responsibilities, currently held by the Ocean Ministry, and safety and security responsibilities, held by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, and would deal with both land and sea disasters, she said.
Coast guard chief Kim Suk-kyoon said his agency would humbly accept Park's decision and intensify efforts to recover all missing ferry passengers. More than one month after the sinking, 286 bodies have been retrieved but 18 others are missing. Some 172 people, including 22 of the ship's 29 crew members, survived.
The immediate backlash from Park's rivals could signal a rough path for the propsals, which require parliamentary approval.
"Disbanding the coast guard is an extremely sensational, stunning announcement, and it gives an impression that Park is passing all the responsibility to the coast guard," said Park Kwang-on, a spokesman for the main opposition party.
The coast guard has been blamed for a series of missteps during and after the sinking. Questions have been raised about why its boats came late to the scene and why rescuers didn't enter the sinking ship to rescue passengers trapped inside. The coast guard has said that the ship was listing too far for officers to enter when they arrived.
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