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[Ferry Disaster] Arrest warrant sought for ferry firm owner

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Published : 2014-05-16 21:25
Updated : 2015-05-27 17:10

Prosecutors on Friday requested a preliminary arrest warrant for Yoo Byung-eon, the de facto owner of the Sewol, on the charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion after he disobeyed the summons for questioning.

Yoo and his family are suspected of illegally pocketing billions of won in company funds from several of their affiliates.

The Incheon District Court said that it would review the prosecution’s request on Tuesday.

Yoo’s eldest son Dae-gyun, is currently on the run from the prosecution after disobeying his summons. He was put on the nationwide wanted list by authorities on Wednesday.
Yoo Byung-eon (Yonhap)

Yoo, the former chairman of the now-defunct Semo Group, is believed to be hiding inside the headquarters of a religious sect allegedly led by his family.

Hundreds of the members of the sect have gathered at Geumsuwon, the sect’s main estate in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, and formed a human barricade behind its main gate to block the investigators’ possible entry.

The members of the sect claimed that the authorities are turning Yoo and the religious body into a scapegoat to blame for the sinking of the Sewol that took nearly 300 lives.

Yoo is believed to have controlled the ferry’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. through two of his sons, who own stakes in the firm through various subsidiaries.

“Chonghaejin Marine may be responsible for the Sewol’s sinking, but the deaths of the passengers are on the Coast Guard,” the cult’s spokesman said in a press conference Thursday in front of Geumsuwon.

As of Friday afternoon, an estimated 1,000 members from across the country gathered at Geumsuwon, and protested what they claimed was an unfair “witch hunt” of the cult. According to sources, the prosecutors are mulling over forcibly entering the premises.

The Salvation Sect has refused to confirm whether Yoo was currently in the retreat, but claimed that his eldest son Dae-gyun was not there.

Even if the prosecutors decided on forced entry, detaining Yoo will not be an easy task.

Jeong Dong-sub, a leader of a victims’ group of heretical sects’ and a former member of the Salvation Sect, said the cult members are likely to be faithful to their words that they will “stop the authorities with their lives.” He said in a radio interview that Yoo’s father-in-law likened him to Jesus, while some members actually think Yoo is God.

The investigators have zeroed in on Yoo since the Sewol went down on April 16. They are attempting to prove that he and his family created slush funds worth billions and that he was the actual decision-maker of Chonghaejin Marine.

If the prosecutors can prove the Yoos operated the company, they can hold the family liable for the irregularities that led to the tragic accident.

The cult has blasted the presidential office, specifically chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, for turning a blind eye to the owner family and the group’s supposed innocence. The religious group claimed that while it was also initially blamed for a mysterious mass suicide in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, in 1987, the subsequent investigation found that the incident was not related to the cult.

The group has some 100 churches in Korea and about 200,000 members worldwide.

In another potential scandal, a former employee of Chonghaejin Marine told local media recently that the Sewol’s captain and over 90 percent of the company were members of the sect. He also claimed that the company forces the heretical religion onto nonbelievers.

If the claims turn out to be true, it can spark further criticism of the already embattled sect. The crew is facing criminal charges, with some charged with manslaughter. The investigation revealed that they abandoned the ship well before any of the passengers did while being fully aware the vessel was doomed.

The religious group, however, denied the allegations, saying only two members of the Sewol’s crew are its members.

As of Friday, 20 of the 476 crew and passengers on the ship remained missing while the death toll stood at 284.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)




* 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 artworks

 

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.”