JINDO, South Korea - South Korea's prime minister offered to resign today over the government's handling of a deadly ferry sinking, blaming "deep-rooted evils" and societal irregularities for a tragedy that has left more than 300 people dead or missing and led to widespread shame, fury and finger-pointing.
The resignation offer comes amid rising indignation over claims by the victims' relatives that the government didn't do enough to rescue or to protect their loved ones. Most of the missing and dead were high school students on a school trip. Officials have taken into custody all 15 people involved in navigating the ferry that sank April 16, a prosecutor said.
South Korean executive power is largely concentrated in the president, Park Geun-hye, so the resignation offer by Prime Minister Chung Hong-won appears to be largely symbolic. There was no immediate word from Park about whether she would accept Chung's resignation.
Chung was heckled by relatives and his car was blocked when he visited a shelter on an island near the site of the sinking a week ago. Today, he issued an extraordinary statement to reporters in Seoul on the national tragedy.
"As I saw grieving families suffering with the pain of losing their loved ones and the sadness and resentment of the public, I thought I should take all responsibility as prime minister," Chung said. "There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong. I hope these deep-rooted evils get corrected this time and this kind of accident never happens again."
Meanwhile, Yang Jung-jin of the joint investigation team said two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew were taken in on preliminary arrest warrants issued late Friday. Formal arrest warrants were issued Saturday night. Eleven other crew members, including the captain, had been formally arrested earlier.
All are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need as the ferry Sewol sank. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out.
Divers have recovered 187 bodies and 115 people are believed to be missing, though the government-wide emergency task force has said the ship's passengers list could be inaccurate. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.
The seven surviving crew members who have not been arrested or detained held non-marine jobs such as chef or steward, Yang said in a telephone interview from Mokpo, the southern city near the wreck site where prosecutors are based.
South Korean television aired video of police escorting the four men to court. All four wore baseball caps that hid their faces, and at least one was limping.