President Park Geun-hye apologised on Tuesday to families of the 302 victims of the ferry capsize for her government's failure to combat systemic and regulatory "evils", and pledged to revamp safety regulations, as an investigation proceeded into South Korea's worst maritime accident in 21 years.
Two days after her prime minister resigned over the tragedy, Park's comments are another attempt to defuse growing public anger about the April 16 sinking of the 6,825-tonne Sewol.
"I don't know how to apologise for the failure to prevent this accident, and for the insufficient first response," Park said in a statement to her cabinet that was broadcast on national television. "I am sorry to the people and heavy-hearted that many precious lives were lost."
Park and her government have been widely criticised over the authorities' slow response to the sinking of the ferry on April 16, and for the perceived corruption and lax regulation of the shipping industry.
Echoing words used by Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won when he fell on his sword on Sunday, Park blamed systemic and regulatory failings for one of South Korea's worst ever maritime tragedies. "I feel so regretful for having been unable to correct such long-running evils and letting an accident like this take place," she said.
Park accepted Chung's resignation but ordered him to remain in office until the recovery operation was completed.
Harrowing tales of those who drowned have emerged as bodies were recovered. One diver described finding the corpses of a boy and a girl tied together using their life-vests.
Earlier on Tuesday, the president had travelled to Ansan just south of Seoul, where she paid her respects at a memorial for the schoolchildren who died in the disaster. Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 325 were students from the same high school in Ansan. Only 75 of them were rescued. But in a sign of the boiling anger felt by relatives of the missing and the dead, there were shouted demands for her floral tribute to be removed from the shrine, and reports the president had been jostled.
Park was also jeered by some relatives when she visited them in Jindo, the centre of the rescue effort, in the wake of the disaster. She described the decision by some crew members to flee the sinking ship as "like a murderous act". "I apologise to the people that so many precious lives were lost," Park said, according to a statement issued by the government. "We should be firmly determined to remake from scratch the whole safety system of the Republic of Korea," she added.
On Monday prosecutors raided the coastguard office in the southern port of Mokpo to probe allegations that it had failed to respond quickly enough to a passenger's emergency call.
All 15 of the surviving crew responsible for sailing the huge ferry remain in custody, facing charges including negligence and abandoning passengers. The public's already dim view of the crew worsened Monday when the coastguard released a video showing the trouserless captain scrambling to safety as hundreds of his passengers remained trapped inside the ferry. The 10-minute video – taken by rescue officials – shows 69-year-old Lee Joon-Seok, wearing a sweater and underpants, hastily escaping from the bridge of the tilting ship. The footage shows the open decks nearly empty, after crew repeatedly instructed passengers to stay in their cabins until it became impossible for them to evacuate.
The delay in the crucial final stages – when most crew members fled the ferry – sparked outrage that many lives could have been saved if passengers had received timely instructions. Most of the dead are children from a single year grade at the Danwon High School.
Divers hampered by currents
The confirmed death toll from the accident stood Tuesday at 203, with 99 people still missing, the coastguard said.
"Our job will focus on searching the right side of the fourth floor of the boat... as we've failed to gain access to the side because the ship (sank) with the right side touching the bottom," an official from the state response team said, according to Yonhap.
Several of the ferry's cabins have still not been accessed, with divers hampered by strong currents and debris. As the operation on the seabed crept forward, the probe into the catastrophe was gathering pace, with the head of the ferry's operator called to answer investigators' questions.
Kim Han-Sik, the CEO of Chonghaejin Marine, was summoned to the prosecutors' office in the port city of Incheon, from where the ill-fated ferry departed bound for Jeju island. Kim, 71, issued a tearful apology for the "horrible tragedy" the day after the accident, saying he and other company officials were responsible for a "grave sin" in letting it happen.
Live footage Tuesday showed Kim – wearing a dark hat and a mask shielding most of his face – mobbed by TV crews and reporters as he limped into the prosecutors' office, held up by two aides.
Investigating prosecutors have detained the captain and other crew of the ship, raided the offices of shipping company Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd and the homes of two brothers who own the largest stakes in the company via an investment vehicle. They have also raided the home of Yoo Byeung-eun, the brothers' father, although Yoo through his lawyer has denied he was involved in the running of the shipping company and he has no stake in it.
A day before Yoo's holding company was declared bankrupt by a Korean court in the 1999, its assets, including the shipping company, were folded into another company that was then acquired by an investment vehicle in which the two brothers have the largest stake. Yoo spent four years in jail for fraud in the 1990s.
The two brothers, Yoo Dae-kyun and Yoo Hyuk-ki, have a near 40% stake in the shipping company via an investment vehicle I-One-I. Prosecutors and South Korea's financial regulators are looking at the shareholding structure of the group around Chonghaejin and at whether money was funneled to overseas units of the group. They are also looking at its links to a church co-founded by Yoo Byeung-eun and have raided offices in one of the church branches. Family members, other company executives and crew have been barred from leaving South Korea.
The Chief Executive of Chonghaejin Kim Han-sik was questioned by prosecutors in the port city of Incheon on Friday, where the shipping company's offices are located.
Investigations have centred on whether the sinking was caused by human error, if crew were responsible for the deaths, as many of them fled the ship and left the passengers on board, on whether the vessel was overloaded with cargo and on possible mechanical defects in the ship. Divers are still recovering bodies from the ship, which was carrying 476 passengers and crew, when it sank on a routine crossing in calm weather.