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SEOUL, April 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation Sunday, holding himself responsible for the government's poor response to the deadly sinking of a ferry that has left over 300 people dead or missing.
"I'd like to apologize for the mishandling of a slew of problems, from preventive measures before the accident to the government's initial response and follow-up steps over the accident," Chung said at a press conference, 11 days after the accident that is one of the country's worst maritime disasters.
"Witnessing the pains of families of the victims and grief and anger of the people, I think the right thing for me to do is to take all responsibility and resign," he said.
President Park Geun-hye will decide whether to accept the resignation after thorough consideration, her office said.
The prime minister, the second in command, said although the priority is managing the situation, he decided to resign "as it is not desirable for me to become a burden to the administration by staying in this post."
On April 16, the 6,825-ton Sewol sank on its way to the southern resort island of Jeju from Incheon, west of Seoul. Of 476 passengers aboard the ill-fated ferry, most of who were high school students on a field trip, 187 have been confirmed dead so far and 115 others were still unaccounted for.
The government has come under fire for bungling its initial response to the ferry sinking. Families accuse the government of not having done enough or acted quickly to rescue the victims at the first signs of the vessel sinking, their ire deepening as the ship's crew, including the captain, were found to have been the first ones to flee. The government was wrong about the number of people aboard and how many had been rescued, disrupting rescue operation plans.
Calling on rescue workers to "do their best to find the missing at the scene," Chung urged the nation "to come together so that the situation can be properly concluded."
"I've learned bitterly that our society has many longstanding corruption and wrongful practices. I hope we can take this tragedy as a chance to resolve such problems to prevent a recurrence of this kind of accident."
Chung has been in charge of the pan-government response team to the maritime disaster.
As the Park government's first prime minister, the former prosecutor took office in February last year.
His resignation, however, was lambasted by the opposition camp, which has been bashing the government over the deadly sinking.
"His offer to resign alone at this critical juncture is an utterly irresponsible act and a cowardly attempt to evade the situation," said Ahn Cheol-soo, the co-leader of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy in a separate press conference.
"The prime minister and the Cabinet must first put their full efforts to manage the situation. The responsible attitude is to then apologize to the people and act according to their wishes," he said.
The ruling party said that while the prime minister should take responsibility, the priority should be on managing the situation.
"As the top official in charge of the Cabinet, he should take responsibility for the tragic case. And the government should give its utmost effort with a firm resolution to start anew," said Saenuri's floor leader Choi Kyong-hwan.
"The National Assembly should also proactively support the government on the management of the situation, as this is not the time to argue over who is to be blamed for the incident," he said, apparently directing his comments at the opposition.
The families of the missing passengers had mixed responses to Chung's sudden resignation offer.
"What is he thinking to resign in this current situation?" a family member asked, watching the news at an indoor gymnasium on the southern island of Jindo, near the shipwreck, where the victims' families have been gathered.
"He should first conclude the situation, regardless of whether he has done right or wrong," said another family member.
Another person said, "(Chung) should have left far sooner over the government's failure."
Chung, who hurried to Jindo to meet the victims' families a day after the sinking, had been criticized by relatives who were upset about a delay in rescue efforts.
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