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South Korean president dismantles coast guard after ferry disaster

By K.J. Kwon, Paula Hancocks and Jethro Mullen, CNN
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Park Geun-hye sheds tears as she recalls ferry victims
  • She says the coast guard "failed in its duty to carry out the rescue operation"
  • The Sewol ferry sank in the Yellow Sea en route to a resort island on April 16
  • Most of the passengers were students on a high-school field trip

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's President made an emotional apology Monday over the ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people last month and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.

"As the President who should be responsible for people's life and security, I am sincerely apologizing to the people for having to suffer pain," said President Park Geun-hye in a televised speech. "The final responsibility for not being able to respond properly lies on me."

The Sewol ferry sank en route to the resort island of Jeju on April 16, leaving more than 304 people dead or missing. Most of the passengers were high school students on a field trip.

"As a President, I feel a sense of sorrow for not being able to protect them during their family trip," said Park, whose approval ratings have dropped significantly in the weeks since the sinking.

S. Korean President apologizes
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
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Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks
Ferry CEO charged with negligence
Ferry captain, 3 crew charged with murder

The Sewol disaster caused widespread outrage in South Korea over lax safety standards and the failure to rescue more people as the ship foundered.

Questions have been raised over the government's oversight of the ferry industry and its handling of the crisis.

Coast guard under fire

Park slammed the coast guard for its role in the disaster, saying it "failed in its duty to carry out the rescue operation."

The coast guard has been criticized amid suggestions it could have saved more passengers as the ferry was sinking into the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

"After serious consideration, I've decided to dismantle the coast guard," Park said. "The investigation and information roles will be transferred to the police while the rescue and salvage operation and ocean security roles will be transferred to the department for national safety which will be newly established."

Shedding tears, she proposed building a monument to the victims and setting aside April 16 as a day to focus on safety.

"I, again, pray for those who passed away during the incident and express my deep condolence to the families," Park said.

She singled out people -- both passengers and crew members -- who perished trying to save the lives of others.

"I believe these people are the real heroes of our generation," Park said.

Captain, others charged

The captain and crew members who survived have come under particularly heavy criticism. They are accused of telling passengers to stay put as the ferry began to capsize and then being among the first people to leave the stricken vessel.

A chief prosecutor announced last week that the captain and three other crew members have been charged with murder. Eleven other crew members have been indicted on charges of abandonment and violating a ship safety act.

Investigators have identified problems with the cargo, including overloading and the failure to secure it properly, as being among the likely reasons for the Sewol's sinking. They have said modifications to the ship last year, in which passenger cabins were added to increase its capacity, may have contributed to problems with the ship's balance.

The chief executive of the ferry operator is facing charges of causing death by negligence, as well as causing the capsizing of the ship in the line of duty.

The investigation into the disaster is ongoing, as is the underwater search for the 18 people who remain missing from the sinking.

Captain, 3 crew members face murder charges

What went wrong on the ferry?

CNN's K.J. Kwon and Paula Hancocks reported from Seoul, and CNN's Jethro Mullen wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's Dana Ford contributed to this report.

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