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S. Korea leader apologizes for ferry disaster

President Park Geun-hye (right) consoled a relative of a victim of the sunken ferry Sewol on Tuesday.

European Pressphoto Agency

President Park Geun-hye (right) consoled a relative of a victim of the sunken ferry Sewol on Tuesday.

SEOUL — Under mounting public pressure, President Park Geun-hye apologized Tuesday for failing to prevent a ferry disaster that left 302 people, the vast majority of them high school students, dead or missing, and she promised broad reforms to make her country a safer place.

“My heart aches thinking how I can best apologize and ease the grief and pain,” Park said during a meeting of her Cabinet, admitting to her government’s fumbling in the early stages of rescue operations. “I am sorry that so many precious lives were lost.”

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It was a humbling moment for Park. Ever since she took office in February 2013, Park has built a reputation for her steely leadership in the face of military threats from North Korea. But the political opposition has often accused her of being an imperious leader.

Park got a stinging taste of anger from the grieving families when she visited Ansan, a city south of Seoul, where the students’ school is located, and paid tribute to the dead students. The families turned away the memorial wreaths of flowers donated by Park and other senior government officials.

According to video footage, the first government rescue boats to arrive at the ferry helped the captain and other crew members off the ship, while hundreds of passengers remained trapped.

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