April 22, 2014 6:07 am JST

Anger mounts as South Korea botches response to ferry accident

KIYOYUKI UCHIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- Public frustration is reaching a boiling point over South Korea's handling of the ferry disaster last week, as delayed rescue efforts and misinformation add to families' despair.

     The government's response was mired in confusion from the start. It reported immediately after the ferry Sewol capsized off the coast of Jindo Island that 368 of the 477 passengers aboard had been rescued, when in fact nearly 300 people were still missing. It has since revised the numbers, and the death toll is rising by the day. It also had trouble confirming how many passengers were onboard.

     The lack of coordination between the Coast Guard, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Ministry of Security and Public Administration is coming into sharp relief as public attention shifts from rescue efforts and the captain who fled the ship to the government's crisis management.

     Daily paper JoongAng Ilbo assailed the government on Monday, pointing out that the lack of a control tower resulted in its meandering response.

     Repeated retractions and revised announcements have added to the distrust. Families remain skeptical even after the government assured them that more than 500 divers are currently looking for missing passengers.

     Inconsiderate remarks and behavior by some public officials have also stirred outrage. A top government official was fired after trying to get his picture taken at a nearby port facility that was serving as the response center.

    To undo the damage, the government has belatedly set up a task force on Jindo Island to coordinate efforts among all the involved agencies, a departure from its standard risk management procedures. Prime Minister Jung Hong-won is serving as chief commander.  

President seen on public's side

But such frustration has yet to dent public support for President Park Geun-hye. Her approval rating, released Friday by Gallup Korea, remained flat at 59%, and peer Realmeter said Monday that support has edged up to 64.7%.

     That public exasperation is not immediately reflected in the poll results is not the only reason for the high numbers. Professor Choi Chang-ryul at Yong In University says that "the public sees Park separately from the government," adding that it believes "the president is on the side of the family members, and that she is reprimanding the government on their behalf."

     Park visited the island April 17, the day after the accident, raising the hackles of those who wanted her to be directing rescue efforts. But the president drew applause when she instructed government officials to quickly relay any information to the families.

     And she has kept up her rhetoric. "The government's crisis management system and its initial response need to be reassessed," Park told top officials at a meeting Monday. "Public servants don't have trust at the site. Those who are bent on protecting their jobs will be removed from their posts," she added.

     But professor Choi is skeptical that the public will remain on her side if the confusion continues. Some media have criticized the president for failing to live up to her campaign promise of ensuring public safety. And the legal changes that resulted in the confused response were made under her watch.

     Once the search for missing passengers runs its course, left-leaning media and opposition parties will likely step up criticism of the government. Park will then face a crucial test in maintaining the public's support.