SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun Hye said Monday she will dismantle the Korea Coast Guard for its botched response during last month's ferry disaster that left more than 300 people either dead or missing.
"The coast guard failed to carry out its entrusted duties," Park said in a nationally televised address, in which she also offered a fresh apology for the government's inadequate and mismanaged response to April 16 ferry sinking.
"The sacrifices could have been drastically decreased if (the coast guard) did prompt and active rescue operations right after the incident," she said.
Park, whose government has come under a storm of criticism from the public for its poor disaster response, said most of the coast guard's duties and responsibilities will be transferred to a new Ministry of National Safety, which she plans to establish in an effort to prevent similar disasters from happening again in the future.
Her speech came as rescue workers continue to search for the bodies of 18 people still missing. Of the 476 people who on board the 6,825-ton ferry when it sank off the southwestern coast, 172 were rescued while 286 bodies were recovered. Most victims were high school students on a school excursion.
"As the president responsible for the people's lives and safety, I offer whole-hearted apology for the sufferings of those people," Park said. She added that as leader she also takes "final responsibility for being unable to properly deal with the incident."
Park has publicly apologized over the incident several times, including directly to the families of the victims, but previous ones were less formal.
She shed tears at the end of the speech as she called out the names one by one of the teachers and crew members who were killed while trying to save other people as the ship was sinking, as well as a diver who died during operations to search the sunken ship.
Last Thursday, prosecutors charged four crew members, including the captain, with murder for having fled the sinking ship after telling the passengers to stay put inside.
"Their irresponsible behaviors are virtually akin to the actions of murder," Park said.
The ferry sinking has sent Park's approval ratings tumbling to one of the lowest levels since she took office in February last year. Her speech is widely seen as an attempt to minimize the political fallout ahead of local elections set for June 4.