"As the president responsible for the lives and safety of South Koreans, I offer my sincere apology for all the suffering inflicted upon the people," Park said in a televised address to the nation.

"The ultimate responsibility of the poor response to this accident lies with me," she said, before bowing deeply to the television cameras.

Park's popularity ratings have been hammered by the April 16 disaster that claimed around 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.

She has voiced regret several times, but Monday's apology was the first in which she accepted direct responsibility.

In her address, she also underlined the failure of the coastguard's immediate response to the tragedy, and acknowledged the complaints of the victims' relatives that many more lives might have been saved.

"I have decided to dismantle the coastguard," she said, adding that its investigative activities would be taken up by the police and its maritime patrol operations will be handed over to a newly created ministry of national safety.

(Agencies)

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