(SEOUL) — The prime minister of South Korea offered to resign Saturday over the mishandling of the ferry sinking in which at least 180 people were killed and more than 100 were still missing.
“The right thing for me to do is to take responsibility and resign,” Prime Minister Chung Hong-won told a press conference, according to the Yonhap news agency.
All 15 people who were responsible for navigating the ferry when it sank on April 16 have been arrested, accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need.
Divers have recovered more than 150 bodies and many passengers remain missing. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.
Many of the victims were high school students on the ferry for a field trip.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the ferry sank. By then the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many of the missing could not escape.
Video showed that Lee was among the first people rescued. Some of his crew said he had been hurt, but a doctor who treated him said he had only light injuries.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the captain and some crew members of the sunken ferry committed “unforgivable, murderous behavior” by telling the passengers to stay put while giving themselves opportunities to escape.
“Legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act,” she said.
Lee has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck – where they would have had a greater chance of survival – without telling them to abandon ship.
The tragedy has riveted and horrified the country from the start. Cameras rushed to the ferry sinking as soon as the news broke and the population was mesmerized as it watched the tragedy unfold with students flailing in the cold water, the boat slowly turning upside down and eventually slipping beneath the surface.
What has also taken a toll on the Korean psyche are the alleged acts of cowardice, callousness and cruel hoaxes.
In the days after the ferry sank, families were tormented with hoax text messages claiming to be from students trapped in air pockets complaining that they were cold, but still alive. A woman posing as one of the divers trying to rescue the trapped passengers was exposed as a fraud.
A photo of a government official sitting on a chair to eat ramen while the families of the ferry victims were eating on the floor circulated on South Korean social media and criticism poured in.
A second official from the ministry of security and public administration came under even more criticism for posing for a self-promoting photo in front of the list of the dead at the gymnasium where families were sheltered. That official was suspended and then allowed to resign.
The response to the sinking has forced the nation to reassess what Korea has become.
A widely shared editorial on social networks from Saturday’s Joongang Ilbo — a South Korean newspaper — concluded with a scathing self-criticism that, “A nation’s standards and capability is tested when disaster and crisis come by. Our country’s level is a failing grade and of a third-class country.”
“Korea is now depressed,” an editorial in Hankyoreh newspaper said. “But for such collective depression to be rightly cured, this atmosphere should not be quickly changed nor forgotten.”
“Koreans are very nationalistic and they take pride in the rapid development of their country. When there’s some problem or anything that reflects poorly on the collective, on the nation or Koreans on the whole, people will get upset about it,” said Daniel Pinkson, head of International Crisis Group in Seoul.
Yellow ribbons have proliferated on Korean social media and the country has held candlelight vigils, but those gestures have gone only so far.
“Koreans want to share everything together,” said Sulim Park, public relations manager of Italian shoe brand, Tod’s. The company cancelled three shows and events out of respect for the ferry victims. “My family or friends were not personally affected by this tragedy, but call it nationalism or whatever, but we try to share the grief together.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Lauren del Valle, CNN
Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
Susan Scutti, CNN