SEOUL — Prime Minister Chung Hong Won, the number two official in the South Korean government, apologized and offered his resignation on Sunday, as the country remained angry and saddened over the sinking of a ferry that left 302 people, the vast majority of them high school students, dead or missing.
President Park Geun Hye quickly accepted his resignation but asked Chung to stay in his post until the government completes its rescue operations, said Min Kyung Wook, a presidential spokesman.
The government has come under fire as early investigations revealed loopholes in safety measures and lax regulatory enforcement that investigators said contributed to the sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, on April 16.
It was also criticized for failing to respond quickly and efficiently to the crisis and for fumbling during the early stages of rescue operations.
As of Sunday morning, 115 ferry passengers remained missing. The number of the survivors, 174, has not changed for the past 11 days. The official death toll was at 187.
Public anger spilled onto the official website of Park’s office, where someone posted a message on Sunday to say “why you should not be the president.” The posting, which accused Park of failing to show leadership in the handling of the ferry disaster, attracted 200,000 views within 12 hours, as well as hundreds of supportive comments.
A somber-looking Chung accepted the criticism on Sunday when he offered “an apology to the people” during a nationally televised news conference. “When I saw the people’s sadness and fury, I thought it was natural for me to step down with an apology,” he said.
Chung is the highest-ranking government official to lose his job over the sinking, South Korea’s worst disaster since 1995, when a department store collapsed in Seoul, killing 501 people.
South Koreans were especially traumatized by the fact that most of the dead and missing were students on a class trip.
Many survivors reported that the crew repeatedly instructed passengers to stay inside while the ship was listing dangerously and gradually sinking off southeastern South Korea.
The ship’s captain, Lee Jun Seok, 69, and 14 other top members of the crew escaped the ferry in the first two coast guard ships to arrive at the scene. All of them are now under arrest on criminal charges, including accidental homicide.
The prime minister is a largely ceremonial post in South Korea, with the executive power concentrated in the president, and is sometimes fired when the government needs to soothe public anger after a major scandal or policy failure.
Park’s tumultuous first year in office has been rocked by scandals in domestic politics, as well as unusually high tensions with North Korea following its nuclear test early last year.
“It’s utterly irresponsible and cowardly” for the prime minister to step down in the middle of the rescue operation, Ahn Cheol Soo, a top leader of the main opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said during a news conference on Sunday. Before firing Chung, Park herself should offer an apology, Ahn said.