SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Wednesday formally launched a new safety agency in the wake of April's ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people, mostly teenage students, and exposed shortcomings in disaster response.
The establishment of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security was part of broader government restructuring plans that center on disbanding the coast guard and splitting its responsibilities between the new ministry and the national police agency.
The coast guard has been under fierce public criticism for what authorities say was slow and unprofessional rescue operations on the day of the sinking.
The sinking, one of the country's deadliest disasters in decades, put in national spotlight public safety that analysts say has been ignored during the scramble to rebuild South Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War. Officials said the new ministry would establish comprehensive, swifter responses to disasters.
"We should take a painful lesson from the Sewol disaster and bolster our disaster response capabilities," Prime Minister Chung Hong-won told an inauguration ceremony for the new ministry, referring to the name of the sunken ferry.
The new ministry has about 10,045 employees, becoming the fifth largest government department, according to the home affairs ministry.
Officials blamed crew members' negligence, overloaded cargo and improper storage for the sinking, along with untimely rescue efforts. A South Korean court last week sentenced 15 navigation crew members to between five and 36 years in prison.
A total of 295 bodies have been recovered but nine others are still missing. South Korea last week stopped underwater searches for the missing citing low chances of finding them and safety concerns for divers.