Chaos of Sewol tragedy grips the Blue House

Posted on : 2014-05-10 13:41 KST Modified on : 2014-05-10 13:41 KST
Blue House trying to shrug off criticism over inept response to Sewol, as agitation by “subversives”
 at the entrance road to the Blue House
at the entrance road to the Blue House

By Seok Jin-hwan, Blue House correspondent

Tension briefly gripped the Blue House on May 9 when family members of victims from the Sewol ferry sinking traveled almost to the front courtyard in a protest visit to demand a meeting with President Park Geun-hye.

Park herself did not answer the calls. Instead, two senior secretaries were sent out to hear the demands from the family members, who had been facing off with police in front of the Blue House since early in the morning. Many inside the Blue House reportedly opposed a direct meeting on the grounds that it could set a precedent requiring personal presidential apologies for everything that occurs during a disaster recovery.

Resignation and apology from KBS, but no presidential meeting

The visit by family members triggered alarm in the Blue House, where the Chief of Staff held an early morning meeting of the secretariat. The relatives arrived in front of the Blue House at around 4 am to demand a meeting with the President, but it took another five and a half hours - during which there was a long faceoff with police - before a representative was able to meet with two senior secretaries.

The Blue House attempted to defuse the situation by having senior secretary for political affairs Park Joo-woo and senior secretary for public relations Lee Jung-hyun come out to respond to the meeting request. At the same time, it gave itself a positive evaluation of having on having responded “faster than expected” to the family members’ demands regarding the KBS network.

Six hours after the relatives arrived at the Blue House, KBS newsroom chief Kim Si-gon announced his intention to resign. Five hours after that, KBS president Gil Hwan-young arrived before the Blue House to apologize to the family members.

A Blue House official was evasive when asked whether the Blue House has asked for KBS to cooperate or help smooth over the situation.

“It wouldn't be appropriate for the Blue House to comment on things involving a news organization,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “But my understanding is that an opinion was conveyed on the present situation.”

Concerned about the reaction from family members, Blue House presidential officers appeared greatly relieved when they backed off after Kil’s apology, without pressing further for a meeting with the President.

■ Blue House fears ‘subversives’ and ‘rumor mill’

In its response to demands that it take responsibility for the inept response to the Sewol disaster, the Blue House has continued to sound the alarm over “groundless rumors” and “subversives.” Spokesperson Min Kyung-wook, himself a KBS news anchor until recently, used the term “legitimate bereaved family members” to describe the people who visited the Blue House.

“There are family members here now [at the entrance road to the Blue House], and it has been decided that if it is a matter of hearing out the requests of legitimate bereaved family members, then someone should go out there to hear what they have to say,” Min said.

When asked what he meant by “legitimate,” Min explained, “We can’t exactly deal with people who are not actually bereaved family members.”

The implication is that “subversives” involved in political agitation were mixed in with the family members - a subtle sign of how the Blue House views the criticisms directed against the administration throughout the Sewol disaster response.

Park made similar remarks before senior officials while presiding over an emergency public welfare meeting at the Blue House the same day.

“Behavior that causes social unrest and division has a negative effect on our economy,” she said.

“There are false reports and distorted information going around, and I hope that all of you here will work hard together to fix this, promote understanding, and give hope to society again,” Park continued. “I don’t know what will come of this country if things keep on this way.”

Park’s argument echoed the one currently being made by conservative media outlets, which have claimed that the political opposition, and progressives in general, have been using the Sewol disaster to attack the administration and ruling Saenuri Party (NFP). Essentially, they have revealed their interpretation of the situation: that the criticisms of the Park administration’s errors in the disaster recovery process are more akin to political agitation, spearheaded by certain “elements” - and that the Blue House has been blamed fairly. Office of National Security chief Kim Jang-soo voiced a similar argument when he said, twice, that the Blue House “is not a control tower for disasters.”

Even when she apologized for the response to the sinking, first at a Blue House secretariat meeting on Apr. 21 and then again at a meeting with religious leaders on May 2, President Park also said, “There are too many rumors and unconfirmed allegations going around, and it’s been causing chaos for society.”

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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