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Body of Fugitive Tycoon in South Korean Ferry Sinking Found

Sewol Sinking
Coast guard members searched for passengers near the South Korean ferry Sewol that capsized on its way to Jeju island from Incheon, in Jindo on April 17, 2014. Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

A tycoon and religious sect leader identified as the de facto owner of the South Korean ferry that sank in April, killing more than 300 people, has been found dead, police said.

The body of Yoo Byung Eun, 73, who has been on the run since the disaster, was discovered in a field of plum trees in the southwestern city of Suncheon on June 12 and his identity was recently confirmed through DNA and fingerprint analysis, Woo Hyung Ho, chief of Suncheon Police Station, said today at a televised briefing. The finding ended a months-long manhunt.

“The body was too decomposed to provide a hint on the cause of death,” Woo said. “So far there has been no evidence suggesting homicide.”

Prosecutors blame Yoo for a lack of safety training and investment that could have prevented the April 16 sinking. The tragedy fueled public anger across the country that brought President Park Geun Hye’s popularity to a record low.

Police found empty bottles of rice wine and the popular Korean liquor soju strewn near Yoo’s body, as well as a squalene product made by a company run by his followers, and a copy of his autobiography, “Dreamlike Love,” Woo said. Yoo, an amateur nature photographer, was dubbed “a millionaire photographer without a face” by local media for his reclusive nature and refusal to attend his own exhibitions.

Church Group

Yoo and his family controlled Chonghaejin Marine Co., operator of the Sewol ferry, through a church group that is at the center of a network of about 70 companies, authorities say. Prosecutors have indicted Chonghaejin executives along with fifteen crew members who escaped the ferry without evacuating passengers, most of whom were high school students on an excursion. Park on April 21 said the actions of the crew were “like murder.”

“To South Koreans, Yoo was a symbol of what is wrong with their society, and his death robs them of a chance to express their anger,” Seol Dong Hoon, a sociology professor at Chonbuk National University in the city of Jeonju, said by phone. “The death also leaves the state little to get credit for.”

Only 172 of the 476 people aboard the Sewol were rescued. Divers are still searching for the remaining 10 bodies after retrieving 294 victims from the ferry that capsized off the southwestern coast.

Fraud Case

The Incheon Prosecutors’ Office today expressed condolences for Yoo’s death in an e-mailed statement and said he should have defended himself through a lawyer in a court. It had won court approval yesterday to extend the arrest warrant for Yoo by another six months.

The government offered a reward of nearly $500,000 for information leading to his arrest and about $100,000 for the capture of his eldest son. Yoo was convicted of fraud involving his followers and served a prison term in the early 1990’s, according to the Korea Ministry of Government Legislation website. In 1987, 32 members of his sect were found dead at a factory near Seoul in a group suicide later determined to be unrelated to Yoo, according to the same website.

Prosecutors have arrested a series of followers who they say assisted Yoo while he was on the run. Since May 21, authorities have twice raided a religious retreat for Yoo’s followers in the city of Anseong near Seoul.

Thriving Sects

Yoo’s “Guwon,” or redemption, sect claims a membership of 100,000 even though a realistic estimate would be around 10,000, Tark Ji-il, a professor of theology at the Busan Presbyterian University, said by phone. South Korea’s history of colonization, war and military oppression in the past century has provided fertile ground for a variety of sects to mushroom, he said.

“These sects provide people with answers to life’s agonies that existing religions had failed to,” Tark said. “A considerable number of Christians in South Korea probably belong to heresy groups.”

Police failed to speed up the identification of Yoo’s body after finding it, presuming it was that of a homeless person. police chief Woo said.

Park saw her popularity slide after what she called a botched rescue operation for Sewol passengers. Her approval rating dropped to a record low of 40 percent at the start of this month from 61 percent in March, according to a Gallup Korea poll released July 4. It rose to 44 percent last week.

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