S. Korea Parliament OKs Disbanding of Coast Guard

Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol wipe their tears after South Korean lawmakers voted during the plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's National Assembly on Friday approved plans to disband the coast guard in the wake of criticism over its failure to rescue hundreds of passengers during the sinking of a ferry in April.

Authorities say swifter, more aggressive action by the coast guard in the initial stage of sinking could have saved more lives. The sinking, one of the country's deadliest disasters in decades, killed more than 300 people, mostly teenage students travelling to a resort island for a school trip.

On Friday, South Korean lawmakers passed in a 146-71 vote the plan to transfer the coast guard's responsibilities to theNational Police Agency and a new broader safety agency to be established. Thirty-two lawmakers abstained from the floor vote broadcast by a legislature-run website.

The safety agency will also take over the National Emergency Management Agency and some responsibilities held by theMinistry of Security and Public Administration, according to officials at the National Assembly and the public administration ministry. The safety agency's creation is aimed at establishing a comprehensive, swift response system to future disasters, they said.

The restructuring plan will come into force once President Park Geun-hye and her Cabinet Council endorse it in a process widely considered as formality. In May, Park announced the plans to disband the coast guard, calling its rescue work a failure.

Authorities blame overloading of cargo, improper storage, untimely rescue efforts and other negligence for the disaster. Criticism of the coast guard centers on the questions of why its boat was late on the scene and why rescuers didn't enter the sinking ship to rescue passengers trapped inside. The coast guard has said the ship was listing too far for its officers to safely enter when they arrived.

The coast guard, founded in 1953, only became an independent organization in 1996. It was previously part of the country's police agency. One big coast guard responsibility is dealing with Chinese fishermen illegally operating in South Korean waters. The new safety agency would take over those duties.

The legislature also passed a separate proposal to establish an ad-hoc committee and launch an independent investigation into the sinking. Relatives of the sinking victims, who want a probe into higher-level officials, will get the right to recommend three of the 17 committee members.

Last month, South Korean prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the ferry's captain and life sentences for three key crew members, blaming their negligence and abandonment of passengers for the mass loss of life. A court is to issue verdicts on them next week.

Three relatives of the doomed ferry's billionaire owner were sentenced to up to three years in prison over corruption charges earlier this week. The tycoon was found dead on the run in July.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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