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.
* Pursuant to an order by the Press Arbitration Commission, we have been asked to publish the following statement from the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC).
Evangelical Baptist Church (“EBC,” the “Salvation Group”*) and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun Related Corrections and Official Statement by EBC
After the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, the media published a flood of indiscriminate articles regarding the EBC (also known as Guwonpa* in Korean
) and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun. Due to the immense volume of articles, it is impossible to correct and counter every single one. Therefore, in agreement with the EBC and the surviving family of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun, we are publishing the following combined corrections and Official Statement by EBC.
* This label, which is translated as the Salvation Group, has been applied disparagingly to the Evangelical Baptist Church
1. In regards to the claims that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was the owner of the Sewol ferry vessel and the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin Marine Ltd (“Chonghaejin”) and its affiliated companies
The majority of the media reported that, as the owner of the Sewol ferry, Mr. Yoo Byung-eun directly managed Chonghaejin and its affiliated companies and that he used operating funds for personal purposes. However, Mr. Yoo retired from his executive management position in 1997. He did not own any shares in the noted companies, nor had he managed operations, nor used the operating funds for personal reasons. He was not the owner of the Sewol ferry, nor the Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin. As such, he had not provided any directives in regards to the overloading of the Sewol ferry or its renovation (e.g. expansion of the cabins and cargo area).
2. In regards to the reports of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s accumulation of illicit funds and lobbying of lawmakers
Although some media outlets reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had established favorable relationships by paying bribes to politicians, Korean Prosecutors’ Office verified last October that reports of such bribery activity were false. We hereby correct all articles pertaining to this matter.
3. In regards to the allegations of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s asset holdings in other people’s names and misappropriation of offerings made to the EBC
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was a wealthy billionaire who owned real estate properties, including Geumsuwon, both in Korea and abroad under other people’s names and that he diverted the tithes and offerings made to the EBC to an illicit fund and expanded his businesses.
The EBC has confirmed that reports of his wealth incorrectly included real estate properties owned by farming associations, which had been established by church members. Thus, these reported properties were not held by Mr. Yoo Byung-eun in another person’s name, but are owned by the noted farming associations.
Additionally, Mr. Yoo did not embezzle from the EBC nor did he expand his businesses by diverting tithes or offerings of the pertaining church and its members into an illicit fund.
4. In regards to the reports related to Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s position within the EBC
The EBC has stated that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was not a religious sect leader. Although he was ordained as a pastor in the 1970s by missionaries at the Far East Broadcasting Company, he did not serve as a pastor. There is no pastor in the EBC, since it is a congregation of laymen.
It was also verified that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun did not participate in the official
process to register EBC as a church in 1981, nor had he been revered as a religious sect leader or been made into a God-like figure by the pertaining church or its members.
5. In regards to reports that the EBC is a cult and that it has false doctrines
The majority of the media reported that the EBC is a religious cult and that it preaches doctrines that are not consistent with Christianity. There are certain churches in Korea that call the EBC a cult, solely based on differences between their and the EBC’s doctrines. However, the EBC has affirmed its belief in the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit, His birth, death, and resurrection. The EBC does not worship a particular individual as a religious sect leader or preach any doctrine that contradicts the Bible.
6. In regards to reports that Lee Yong-wook, a senior Coast Guard official, and the Sewol ferry crew, including Captain Lee Jun-seok, are members of the EBC, and that the EBC managed Chonghaejin
It was verified that the captain and the crew members who abandoned the ship at the time of the Sewol ferry accident are not members of the EBC. Only two people have been confirmed as members of the EBC: the late Jeong Hyun-seon, who died while evacuating passengers and thus was designated a national hero, and another person, who had been rescuing passengers and was himself later rescued in an unconscious state. It has also been verified that the EBC does not own any shares of Chonghaejin and that it did not engage in its management. Furthermore, the EBC has stated that Lee Yong-wook, a senior Coast Guard official, has not attended the EBC for the past 15 years.
7. In regards to reports of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s attempt to flee the country by ship, reports of his seeking asylum and reports of his possession of firearms
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to flee the country by ship, that he requested asylum in several countries but was rejected, and that he possessed firearms to protect himself. The prosecutors hastily announced without confirming the facts that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to seek asylum. However, two months later on August 18, the prosecutors revised their statement noting that “upon investigation into the identity of the caller, a person with no relation to the Salvation Group had placed a prank call.” In addition, there was no evidence of any attempt by Mr. Yoo to flee the country. It has also been confirmed that the firearms alleged to be in his possession were collectibles. Furthermore, not only were they collectibles that could not be operated they were also not in his possession while he was fleeing.
8. In regards to reports on allegations about the EBC’s and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s links to the Odaeyang incident and their relationship with the Fifth Republic of Korea
Some news articles created the impression that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun were behind the Odaeyang mass suicide incident. Some also reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had been able to rapidly grow the Semo Group in the 1980s (e.g. securing the business rights to operate the Han River Ferry Cruise) by using a connection with Mr. Chun Kyung-hwan and a close relationship with the former President Chun Doo-hwan’s Fifth Republic of Korea. However, the Odaeyang mass suicide incident was thoroughly investigated by the prosecution and the police three times—in 1987, 1989, and 1991. All three investigations concluded that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had no connection to the incident. Also, neither Mr. Yoo Byung-eun nor the EBC had any collusive ties with the Fifth Republic of Korea. All of this was verified in the official document issued from the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on May 21, 2014.
9. In regards to reports alleging that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun held photography exhibitions at the world’s top museums by donating funds and that he coerced purchases of his artwork
The artwork of Ahae (Mr. Yoo Byung-eun) was examined and authorized for exhibitions at renowned museums and exhibition sites in the United States and Europe by their screening committees. The exhibitions were unrelated to donations, and it was confirmed that there was no causal relationship between Ahae’s donation history and the exhibitions. Moreover, Mr. Yoo’s photography exhibitions were authorized by the committees after the directors of the respective museums had acknowledged the artistic value of Ahae’s works and subsequently proposed hosting the exhibitions. It has been confirmed that the exhibitions were not a result of Mr. Yoo’s patronage or donation. Additionally, the above museums have verified that an exhibition can never be authorized unless the artistic value of an artist’s works is recognized by the screening committee, irrespective of the amount of money an artist donates.
Additionally, it was reported that Mr. Yoo coerced Chonghaejin and its affiliates to purchase his photos at inflated prices. However, this has been confirmed to be false.
Lastly, the Evangelical Baptist Church has released the following statement to the media:
“We sincerely request of the press to serve the public’s right to know with objective and balanced reporting, guarding against biased arguments from its interviewees, all the while fulfilling its duty and responsibility to create no victims from such reporting.
We ask the press to reflect upon its manner of reporting on the Sewol ferry accident. Without waiting for the truth to be revealed through the completion of the investigative and judicial process, the reporting largely focused on releasing exclusive and sensational news reports, which led to misleading the public and essentially conducting a trial in the court of public opinion. We also ask the press to avoid compromising the democratic principles of a constitutional state and to prudently take strict precautions against those forces that aim to take advantage of this period of heartbreak for this nation in order to advance their own position and authority.”