Channel NewsAsia

S Korea's Park keeps PM who resigned over ferry disaster

After two failed attempts to appoint a new prime minister, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced Thursday her "agonised" decision to retain the incumbent who had resigned over April's ferry disaster.

SEOUL: After two failed attempts to appoint a new prime minister, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced Thursday her "agonised" decision to retain the incumbent who resigned over April's ferry disaster.

In an effort to assuage criticism of the government's emergency response, Chung Hong-won resigned just 10 days after the Sewol passenger ferry sank on April 16 with the loss of 300 lives.

Chung said: "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."

Park accepted his resignation, but Chung was asked to remain in the job until a successor was found -- a task that turned into an embarrassing debacle for the president.

Her first nominee, Ahn Dae Hee -- a former Supreme Court justice -- quit after he was questioned about the ethics of earning a high income after leaving public service.

Her second nominee -- Moon Chang Keuk -- a former journalist also withdrew two days ago amid public anger over alleged comments he made at a church gathering - that it was God's will for Korea to suffer under Japan's colonial rule.

The two climbdowns were a fresh blow to Park, whose popularity ratings -- in the wake of the ferry disaster -- are already at their lowest level since she took office 16 months ago.

The Sewol sinking triggered a surge in anti-establishment sentiment which the opposition was able to exploit in its takedown of Park's nominees.

As well as embarrassing the president, the opposition has sought to push the image of Park as an authoritarian leader whose decision-making -- and personnel management -- is flawed by a reliance on a very small clique of advisers.

Apparently fearful of another nominee battle, Park was eventually left with little choice but to retrospectively reject Chung's initial resignation.

Presidential Blue House spokesman Yoon Doo-hyun said the decision arose from the need to break an administrative paralysis caused by the lack of a prime minister.

"The many problems exposed during the screening process (for PM candidates) created a big void in the administrative process and a big division in public opinion," Yoon told reporters.

"Such problems can't be left unresolved for too long so (Park) made the agonised decision to reject Chung's resignation," he added.

The ruling Saenuri party welcomed the move, saying it was important to fill the post as soon as possible.

But the main opposition party criticised President Park, saying it showed how she lacked competency.

The premiership is a largely symbolic position in South Korea, where all real power lies in the Blue House.

It is the only cabinet post requiring parliamentary approval, meaning would-be premiers can face tough confirmation hearings.

It was not immediately clear how long Chung would remain in the post.

Speaking to reporters, he voiced "regret" at all the confusion and vowed to devote his time in office to promoting reforms aimed at improving the country's public safety system.

"I will do my best ... to make a safer country, reform official institutions, eradicate corruption and normalise abnormal practices," Chung said.

The investigation into the Sewol disaster has uncovered evidence of corporate greed, official incompetence and unhealthy -- sometimes criminal -- collusion between state regulators and the businesses they monitor.

Anti-government sentiment ran very high in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and when Chung visited relatives of the victims they threw water at him and pushed him around.

His resignation back in April did little to calm the heated atmosphere and Park was eventually obliged to make a personal, tearful apology on television, during which she accepted responsibility for her administration's mishandling of the disaster.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia