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[Editorial] Brazen defiance

Ferry owner, family must be brought to justice

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Published : 2014-05-14 20:43
Updated : 2014-05-14 20:43

The prosecution has been spearheading the probe into the sinking of the ferry Sewol. It has indicted all 15 surviving crew members of the ship, including its captain, and is expanding its inquiry into related government offices, civilian maritime agencies and the operator of the ferry and its affiliates.

Frustratingly, the probe into the operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and its affiliates is making little progress. And it is infuriating that the investigation is not making headway mainly because key figures, including the family members of the de facto head of the company, are apparently resisting the investigation.

Prosecutors have said that Yoo Byung-eon, who is believed to be controlling a business group that includes Chonghaejin, and his family members and associates are suspected of committing numerous wrongdoings.

They face charges of embezzlement, book cooking, tax evasion and illegal offshore wealth transfer, among others. All these alleged illegal acts and wrongdoings surrounding Chonghaejin and its affiliates underlay the sloppy operation of the ferry company that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people.

Prosecutors believe that Yoo, called “chairman” by his associates in the companies and a religious sect he allegedly leads, controls Chonghaejin through his two sons, who own stakes in the firm through various subsidiaries.

Investigators have found that over the past 10 years Yoo received 15 million won every month from Chonghaejin. They also seized documents showing that Yoo was given the first employee serial number when Chonghaejin was established in 1999. These more than prove that he is the real owner of the company.

It was revealed that Yoo’s eldest son also received 10 million won every month from Chonghaejin and its affiliates. In fact, the younger Yoo is the biggest shareholder of four affiliates, including I-One-I Holdings, which is Chonghaejin’s parent company and is believed to be a holding company of the group run by the Yoo family.

Yoo’s second son, who is currently overseas, is allegedly engaged in businesses that include those related to his father’s photography. Investigators said that Chonghaejin and its affiliates used hefty sums of money to buy Yoo’s photographs, even paying 50 million won a piece.

More and more allegations are rising of dirty, greedy practices and deals involving the Yoos and companies under their control, which are sufficient to charge them. The prosecution accordingly has sent out summons, first to Yoo’s second son and then to the eldest son and a daughter.

Preposterously, all but chairman Yoo’s elder brother have ignored the repeated prosecution summons. The second son responded to the first summons by saying that he needed time to buy air tickets and appoint defense attorneys. Then he apparently went into hiding.

Neither has the eldest son responded to repeated summons from the prosecution, which belatedly obtained a court-issued detention warrant. Investigators armed with this detention warrant raided his home in Seoul, but failed to find him.

At first some thought that the Yoo family was trying to buy some time before undergoing questioning by prosecutors. But judging from the latest developments, they seem to be making a concerted attempt to avoid the investigation.

What’s more embarrassing is the speculation that the Yoos may be seeking political asylum in a foreign country. This appears to be a possibility since members of the religious sect allegedly led by Yoo have been holding demonstrations near the prosecution offices, protesting what they claim is “religious persecution.” Yoo’s supporters posted petitions with similar claims on the White House website.

The prosecution made the right decision to summon Yoo on Friday. Although it had to change its plans and question his children first, interrogation of the chairman should not be delayed any longer under the circumstances.

Prosecutors also should make sure they bring those staying abroad, including Yoo’s son and daughter, to justice by employing all available means such as extradition or canceling their passports.