SEOUL, May 19 (UPI) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she would disband the country's coast guard for their shoddy response to the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April.
Bowing in apology, Park said she was offering a "heartfelt apology" for having failed to rescue people aboard the sinking ferry and for the coast guard's inept rescue operations. The Sewol ferry disaster on April 16 killed 286 passengers, most of whom were high school students. As of Monday, 18 people are still missing.
"The coast guard failed to fulfill its duties in the Sewol disaster," Park said. "The number of casualties could have been greatly reduced had it been more assertive in responding."
Th president said the the coast guard's responsibilities will be given to a new safety agency under the national government, which will give it more oversight and ensure that safety and disaster-response protocols are met. Communication transcripts show that when the Sewol first sent out distress signals on the morning of April 16, there was miscommunication between the coast guard and maritime traffic control authorities, delaying the dispatch of rescue ships.
South Korean law states that the captain of a vessel should be aboard a distressed vessel until all passengers have been safely evacuated. The ferry captain and crew have been indicted on charges of homicide and negligence for fleeing the ship on the first rescue boats, before passengers had been evacuated.
Park's eyes filled with tears as she read the names of passengers and crew members who lost their lives by staying on the ship and trying to save as many people on the ferry as possible.
South Korea's main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said Park's announcement was designed as "shock therapy" to divert attention from the failure of her office in handling the crisis. But Park continued to defend her plan to disband the coast guard.
"We failed to save those students who should have been saved," she said. "I will make this an opportunity for South Korea to be born again."