Anger mounts over botched response to South Korean ferry accident
KIYOYUKI UCHIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer
SEOUL -- Public frustration is boiling in the aftermath of South Korea's ferry disaster, with the government taking heat for delayed rescue efforts and misinformation.
The government's response to the April 16 accident was mired in confusion from the start. Immediately after the ferry Sewol capsized off the coast of Jindo Island, authorities reported that 368 of 477 passengers aboard had been rescued. In fact, nearly 300 people were missing. The government, which had trouble even confirming the actual passenger tally, has since revised the numbers. The death toll is rising by the day.
Public attention is shifting from the captain, who fled the ship, to the government's crisis management. Many are angry about what they see as poor coordination between South Korea's Coast Guard, Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and Ministry of Security and Public Administration. Daily paper JoongAng Ilbo on April 21 assailed the government for its meandering response, pinning the blame on the lack of an effective command center for directing the process.
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 looking for missing passengers.
Inconsiderate remarks and behavior by some public officials have also stirred outrage. One high-ranking government official was fired after trying to get his picture taken at a nearby port facility that was serving as the response center.
Moving into damage-control mode, the government belatedly set up a task force on Jindo Island to coordinate efforts among all the agencies involved. This is a departure from its standard risk-management procedures. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won is serving as chief commander.
For now, the discontent does not appear to be denting public support for President Park Geun-hye. Gallup Korea on April 18 said her approval rating remained flat at 59%. Fellow pollster Realmeter said April 21 that support had edged up to 64.7%.
The results may not entirely reflect post-disaster sentiment. But Choi Chang-ryul, a professor at Yong In University, said "the public sees Park separately from the government." The professor added that many citizens believe "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 thought she should be directing rescue efforts. But she drew applause when she instructed government officials to quickly relay any information to the families.
And she has not changed her tune. "The government's crisis-management system and its initial response need to be reassessed," Park told top officials at a meeting April 21. "Public servants don't have trust at the site. Those who are bent on protecting their jobs will be removed from their posts," she said.
But professor Choi is not so sure Park's public support will endure if the confusion continues. Some media have criticized the president for failing to live up to her campaign promise of ensuring public safety. And legal changes that contributed to the awkward response were made under her watch.
Once the search for missing passengers runs its course, left-leaning media and opposition parties are likely to step up criticism of the government. That will test Park's ability to keep citizens in her corner.