JINDO, South Korea – South Korea's prime minister offered to resign Sunday over the government's handling of a deadly ferry sinking, blaming "deep-rooted evils" in society 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 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, and a prosecutor revealed that investigators were also looking into communications made as the ferry sank between a crew member and the company that owns the ship.
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 symbolic. Min Kyung-wook, a presidential spokesman, told reporters that Park would review the offer and make a decision.
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. On Sunday, 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, senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said Sunday that two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew had been formally arrested. They join 11 other crew members, including the captain, in detention.
Yang also said that a crew member called the ship's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., as the ferry was listing April 16 but declined to disclose whether the caller was the captain. Local media reported that the captain called for company approval of an evacuation. Prosecutors said they are analyzing the content of communications between the ship and the company.
The arrested crew members are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need. 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 from Mokpo, the southern city near the wreck site where prosecutors are based.
Capt. Lee Joon-seok told reporters after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for passengers' safety in the cold, swift water. Crew members have also defended their actions.
Helmsman Oh Yong-seok, one of those arrested Saturday, has said he and several crew members did their best to save people. He said that he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said it would soon change ferry systems so that passenger, vehicle and cargo information is processed electronically. There is not only uncertainty about how many people were on the Sewol, but a huge discrepancy regarding the amount of cargo it was carrying when it sank.
The Sewol was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, according to an executive of the company that loaded it. That far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork — 150 cars and 657 tons of other cargo, according to the coast guard — and is more than three times what an inspector who examined the vessel during a redesign last year said it could safely carry.
Yang, the prosecutor, said that the cause of the sinking could be due to excessive veering, improper stowage of cargo, modifications made to the ship and tidal influence. He said investigators would determine the cause by consulting with experts and using simulations.
Prosecutors have also seized documents from Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center and Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center, Yang said, and are analyzing communication messages, vessel tracking data and security camera recordings and others. The centers communicated with Sewol crew members as the ship listed and filled with water. The communications revealed confusion and indecision on the evacuation.
Despite bad weather, dozens of divers planned to continue underwater searches Sunday for the missing, said Ko Myung-seok, a spokesman for the emergency task force. Ko said the weather was worsening Sunday, with a high-seas advisory and rapid ocean currents.
Officials in charge of the search effort said divers had reached two large rooms where many of the lost may lie dead. The rooms are sleeping units designed for many people — one in the stern and one in the bow. Fifty students from Danwon High School in Ansan were booked into one of them. Students from the city near Seoul make up more than 80 percent of the dead and missing; they had been on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju. Large objects that toppled when the ferry tipped over and sank are believed to be keeping divers from reaching bodies in at least one of the rooms.
"I just want to find my son's corpse. I want to see him one last time and hold a funeral for him," said Lim Hee-bin, as he exhalled cigarette smoke near his tent at Paengmok port in Jindo. "But the government search operation is too slow. It's total nonsense."
Lim said his son, Lim Hyun-jin, called him as the ship sank but the call was cut off. His son also sent him blurry and shaky photos showing his friends wearing orange life jackets and seated in a cabin.
"There are the last photos he sent me," Lim said. "These show they were in a dangerous situation."
They also show a cruise that had started with the promise of fun. In a photo from the ferry the night before the sinking, Lim's son wears glasses and holds up two fingers in a "peace" sign with a friend on deck.
Lee reported from Mokpo. Associated Press writers Jung-yoon Choi, Leon Drouin-Keith and Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.