South Korea launches agency to replace coast guard after ferry disaster

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea launches a massive new government agency this week to handle emergency rescue and safety management seven months after a ferry disaster killed 304 people and was blamed by President Park Geun-hye on a failed response by the coast guard. The coast guard is being broken up and its search and rescue duties are being moved to the new National Safety Agency that will have more than 10,000 staff and incorporate fire and emergency response teams, the government said on Tuesday. The Sewol capsized and sank on April 16 after making a turn on a routine voyage due to excess cargo and improper stowage. Many of the victims were teenage children on a school trip who remained in their cabins following crew instructions. Fifteen surviving members of the crew have been convicted of charges ranging from homicide to negligence and received prison sentences of up to 36 years in a case that caused a nationwide anger after video footage of their escape surfaced. In May, Park vowed sweeping reforms to improve emergency response and safety oversight and announced she would break up the coast guard. The new agency starts operation on Wednesday. South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy and a major manufacturing powerhouse, has developed into one of the world's most technically advanced democracies, but faces criticism that regulatory controls and safety standards have not kept pace. Only 172 of the 476 passengers on board the Sewol were rescued as the vessel listed and gradually sank with most of the passengers inside. Many of the survivors were seen on live television being pulled from the water by fishermen who had rushed to the scene near the country's southwestern coast. (Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie)