South Korea ferry disaster: Distrust, anger over President's actions

South Korean President Park Geun Hye consoling an elderly woman after paying tribute at the government's official joint memorial altar for the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol at Ansan Hwarang Park in Ansan, south of Seoul, South Korea, on April 29, 2014. Questions were raised over whether her meeting with a woman at a memorial altar was a set-up, as the woman was later found to be a visitor from the neighbourhood who was not related to any of the victims. -- PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/Asia News Network) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye's latest attempt to soften her public image has backfired, as questions were raised over whether her meeting with an elderly woman at a memorial altar was a set-up.

The President was photographed on Tuesday with a woman she met at the mourning center in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, which instantly gave the public the impression of her trying to comfort the relative of a victim. Later on, the woman was found to be a visitor from the neighbourhood who was not related to any of the victims.

The presidential Blue House immediately denied the reports and addressed concerns that it would aggravate the public's distrust in the government.

"This kind of false report causes distrust among people and divides them from the government," said presidential spokesman Min Kyung Wook.

The woman also denied suspicions, saying she just talked to the President because she looked very concerned.

Suspicions about the meeting spread fast, with rumors circulating online that the woman was one of Ms Park's loyal supporters. A news outlet even reported that the scene was planned ahead by the Blue House and that the woman was asked to meet Ms Park at the altar.

Others also raised questions about how the woman was able to reach Ms Park without being interrupted by her security officers.

The controversy over Ms Park's suspicious encounter also aggravated public anger towards the top office over its response to the Sewol ferry disaster. Amid the dissent against the government, her approval ratings fell to the 40 per cent range for the first time in a year, according to a polling firm.

The timing and place of Ms Park's apology was also controversial. She visited the memorial altar but did not try to meet any grieving relatives of the victims. She only said a few words to victims' family members who were blocking her exit from the memorial, witnesses said.

Instead, she held a photo session with the elderly woman and hurried back to the presidential office, where she told top officials in a weekly Cabinet meeting that she was sorry for the people and felt heavy-hearted.

It was her first public apology after she was pressured by the main opposition party to apologise, but critics took issue with her decision not to offer an apology at the altar.

Despite her apology, Ms Park has increasingly become the target of public criticism. Victims' families protested that she lacked a display of sincerity. Media criticised her gesture as mediocre. The main opposition New Politics Alliance of Democracy also stepped up its attack that the president has not done enough to console the wounded hearts of the victims' families and the people.

Critics say her dull apology readdressed her image of a leader lacking the ability to communicate with the public. They say she failed to read what the public really wants from her - a leader who embraces the pain and the suffering of the people before bringing up new measures to prevent another tragedy.

"It reignited the public outrage over Park's lack of communication with her people," said Professor Yang Seung Ham, a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

"The President should have started by solacing the angry hearts of the victims' family and the people, rather than showing the public how furious she was about the rampant corruptive ties between offices and the industry and that she would dismiss officials responsible of the accident," he said.