SEOUL — Parents of high school students killed in the South Korean ferry disaster marched on the office of President Park Geun-hye in central Seoul on Friday, as prosecutors tightened their investigative noose around an enigmatic family that controls the operator of the doomed ferry.
Holding photos of their children, the parents said they came to ask for a meeting with Park to demand an inquiry into allegations that a tardy and bumbling response by her government drastically increased the number of deaths in the country’s worst disaster in decades.
They also demanded that the government dismiss a top news editor at KBS, South Korea’s largest public broadcasting company, where the government has at least an indirect influence in appointing its top management. Some local media quoted the editor as saying during a recent lunch with colleagues that the number of dead in the ferry tragedy was “not many, compared with the number of people killed in traffic accidents each year.”
KBS denied that the editor made the comment.
“We are not criminals,” Kim Byong-kwon, whose daughter died in the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16, shouted through a loudspeaker. “We have come here not as protesters but to make an appeal to her.”
Two senior presidential aides met family representatives. For 12 hours, hundreds of parents and supporters staged a sit-in near Park’s presidential palace, until Kil Hwan-young, head of KBS, came and apologized for the editor’s “inappropriate” comment.
Their sit-in, and its intense media coverage, represented the latest sign of brewing political trouble for Park. Her approval ratings have sharply dropped since the disaster, with some South Koreans calling for her resignation.
On Thursday, eight university students climbed the landmark statue of an ancient Korean king in central Seoul, unfurling a banner that said, “Down with the Park Geun-hye regime!” They were quickly detained by the police.
As of Friday, 273 people were found to have died in the disaster, a vast majority of them students. Divers were still searching the sunken ferry and its vicinity for 31 people who remain missing more than three weeks after the overloaded vessel sank off southwestern South Korea.
Park has apologized several times for failing to prevent the disaster and what she called her government’s fumbling in the early stages of rescue efforts. Under the mounting pressure, she has vowed stern punishment, blaming the accident on “the deep-rooted evils from the past” — corporate greed and collusive ties between businesses and regulators that she said bred lax safety measures and loose regulatory enforcement.
On Friday, prosecutors tightened their investigations around the family of Yoo Byung-eun, who had made headlines in the 1990s when he was investigated in the mass suicide of 32 members of a religious cult and was convicted of fraud.