The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said Tuesday it will appoint a civilian expert to lead the team searching of the wreck of the Sewol, after it came under fire for concealing the discovery of remains.
The team tasked with searching the wreckage of the Sewol ferry found a piece of bone from the ship on Nov. 17, but its chief told team members to keep the finding secret from the victims' families in a suspected attempt to put an early end to the search. The examination of the wreck has been going on since the vessel was raised in March.
The discovery came a day after the families of five victims who are still missing gave consent to halt the search. Ministry officials apparently feared that the finding could spark calls for the continuation of the operation.
The ministry's internal auditor said a DNA analysis showed that the bone belonged to a woman whose family held a funeral last month, after receiving part of her remains in May.
In light of the rising public criticism, the ministry said it will carry out a major reshuffle of the search team and improve the transparency of its operation.
"We will reorganize the search team's structure and staff to better meet the demands of families who have not been reunited with the remains of their loved ones," Song Sang-heun, a ministry spokesman, said in a briefing. "We are looking for a civilian expert to lead the team."
The chief and deputy chief of the search team were stripped of their duties last week and are currently under investigation, the ministry said.
The 6,800-ton Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, in waters off the country's southwest coast, claiming the lives of 304 people, most of them teenage students on a school trip. It is one of the worst maritime tragedies in South Korean history.
Three years after the sinking, salvage experts lifted the ship from the water and moved it to Mokpo port, 410 kilometers south of Seoul, to facilitate the further search for remains.