South Korea failed to identify what caused the death of a wealthy religious sect leader authorities call the de facto owner of a South Korean ferry that sank in April, killing more than 300 people.
“No indications of poisoning were found, but because the body had decomposed too much, we were unable to identify the cause of death,” National Forensic Service head Seo Joong Seok said today at a televised briefing.
The identification of Yoo Byung Eun, whose body was found in a field of plum trees in the southwest of the country in June, ended a months-long nationwide manhunt for the 73-year-old involving thousands of police officers. Authorities offered a $500,000 bounty on Yoo, who they blamed for a lack of safety training and investment at the Sewol ferry’s operator, which could have prevented its sinking on April 16.
Only 172 of the 476 people aboard the Sewol were rescued. Divers are still searching for the remaining 10 bodies after retrieving 294 victims, most of them school children, from the ferry that capsized off the southwestern coast. The tragedy fueled public anger that at one point brought President Park Geun Hye’s popularity to a record low.
Yoo and his family controlled the ferry’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. through a church group that is at the center of a network of about 70 companies, authorities have said. Prosecutors indicted Chonghaejin executives along with 15 crew members who escaped without evacuating passengers.
Yoo’s sect, called “Guwon” or redemption, claims a membership of 100,000, though the true figure is probably about 10,000, according to Tark Ji-il, a professor of theology at the Busan Presbyterian University. Prosecutors arrested several followers they say assisted Yoo while he was evading arrest.
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.