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Seven-hour mystery about Park, Sewol solved

Mar 29,2018
On the day of the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, then-President Park Geun-hye spent crucial early hours when people could have been saved in her bedroom. As the hours passed, Park met with confidante Choi Soon-sil and got her hair done before starting to deal with the unfolding tragedy, according to a prosecution announcement on Wednesday.

The prosecution concluded that the entire timeline offered by the Park administration about her activities the day of the accident, which killed 304 people, was a fabrication aimed at covering up her slow responses.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office announced the outcome of its investigation into the Park government’s handling of the ferry disaster. Park’s absence in the critical early hours of a lackluster rescue operation generated enough controversy to be branded the “seven-hour mystery.”

Park, who took office in 2013, was ousted in March 2017 for conspiring with her friend Choi to abuse presidential power to receive bribes from conglomerates. They are currently standing trials on numerous charges of corruption.

The probe was requested by the Moon Jae-in Blue House last October after evidence was found that Park aides had manipulated the timeline of their reports to her on the day of the accident in order to cover up the president’s real actions.

According to the prosecution, the Sewol sent its first distress signal at 8:58 a.m. on April 16, 2014, and the Blue House’s crisis management center noticed the situation around 9:19 a.m. through a media report. The situation was shared among presidential aides at 9:24 a.m. using a text message system and the crisis management center completed its first situation report at 9:57 a.m. by contacting the Coast Guard.

That report was sent to Park’s residence around 10:12 a.m., but did not reach her. She was in her bedroom and the report was left on a table outside the room.

Around 10 a.m., Kim Jang-soo, who was head of the National Security Office, tried to telephone Park but she didn’t answer. He contacted An Bong-geun, a presidential secretary, and An drove to the residence and called to the president from outside her bedroom, the prosecution said. Park then came out from the bedroom and telephoned Kim around 10:22 a.m.

The prosecution said the first telephone briefing of Park, therefore, took place at 10:22 a.m., although the Park Blue House had earlier said the call took place at 10:15 a.m. Although Park ordered Kim to make sure there were no casualties in the accident, the most crucial hours of rescue operation had already passed, the prosecution said.

The Park Blue House also lied about where she was when she received the initial briefing. It said she was working in a private office at her residence, but the prosecution said she was in her bedroom.

The prosecution said it interviewed 63 Blue House and government officials who handled the situation at the time of the accident to reconstruct what happened that day.

“The ferry was already at a tilt of 108 degrees by that time and the rescue operation was impossible,” according to the prosecution’s report. The so-called golden time for any rescue operation was up until 10:17 a.m., when the final text message from a survivor inside the ferry was sent. “The Park government apparently doctored the timeline of the initial reporting to the president and her first order to argue that she had acted before the golden time,” the report said.

The Park administration also said she had received 11 written briefings through the day, but the prosecution concluded she only received two. Eleven email reports were sent to Park, but Jeong Ho-seong, a presidential secretary, printed them out en masse in the afternoon and evening and gave two briefings to her.

By 10:31 a.m., the ship had capsized and it was almost submerged by 11:18 a.m. Park, however, waited until later in the afternoon to visit the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

According to the prosecution, she made the decision to make that visit after consulting Choi, her longtime friend who held no public office. Choi arrived at the Blue House around 2:15 p.m. without any security check. Three of Park’s key aides, Jeong, An and Lee Jae-man, joined Park and Choi at the presidential residence to discuss the situation and decided that Park should pay a visit to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

Park summoned her hairdressers around 2:53 p.m. and they arrived at 3:32 p.m.. She left the residence around 4:33 p.m. and arrived at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters around 5:15 p.m. She returned to the residence around 6 p.m.. She continued to stay in the residence, instead of working from the presidential office.

The prosecution indicted Wednesday Kim Jang-soo and Kim Kwan-jin, who served as the head of the National Security Office of the Park Blue House, and Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, on charges of manipulating the Blue House records.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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