November 7, 2014 6:28 am

South Korea disbands coast guard in wake of April’s ferry disaster

Searchers and divers look for people believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry boat Sewol near the buoys which were installed to mark the vessel in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 22, 2014.

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of – South Korea’s National Assembly on Friday approved plans to disband the coast guard in the wake of criticism over its failure to rescue hundreds of passengers during the sinking of a ferry in April.

Authorities say swifter, more aggressive action could have saved more lives. The sinking, one of the country’s deadliest disasters in decades, killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers travelling to a resort island for a school trip.

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The lawmakers voted 146-71 in favour of splitting the coast guard’s duties between the National Police Agency and a broader safety agency that would be established. Thirty-two lawmakers abstained from the floor vote broadcast by a legislature-run website.

The safety agency will also take over the National Emergency Management Agency and some responsibilities held by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, according to officials at the National Assembly and the public administration ministry. The safety agency’s creation is aimed at establishing a comprehensive, swift response system to future disasters, they said.

The restructuring plan will come into force once President Park Geun-hye and her Cabinet Council endorse it in a process widely considered as formality. In May, Park announced the plans to disband the coast guard, calling its rescue work a failure.

Authorities blame overloading of cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and other negligence for the disaster. Criticism of the coast guard centres on the questions of why its boat was late on the scene and why rescuers didn’t enter the sinking ship to rescue trapped passengers. The coast guard has said the ship was listing too far for its officers to safely enter when they arrived.

The coast guard, founded in 1953, only became an independent organization in 1996. It was previously part of the police agency. One big coast guard responsibility is dealing with Chinese fishermen illegally operating in South Korean waters. The new safety agency would take over those duties.

The legislature also passed a separate proposal to establish an ad-hoc committee and independently investigate the sinking. Relatives of the sinking victims, who want a probe into higher-level officials, will get the right to recommend three of the 17 committee members.

South Korean prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for the ferry’s captain and life sentences for three key crew members, blaming their negligence and abandonment of passengers for the mass loss of life. The verdicts are due next week.

Three relatives of the doomed ferry’s billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison for corruption earlier this week. The tycoon was found dead on the run in July.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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