Mysteries linger over Yoo’s death

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 22, 2014 - 21:25
  • Updated : May 27, 2015 - 15:27
The nationwide manhunt for a fugitive tycoon, known to be the de facto owner of the Sewol, ended Tuesday, when the police confirmed that a body found last month was that of Yoo Byung-eun.

The death of the nation’s most wanted man, however, remains a mystery as the authorities are still struggling to determine exactly when and how he died. The fugitive’s death is also shrouded in secrecy as the police identified the body as Yoo’s nearly six weeks after it was found by a farmer in a plum orchard near Suncheon, South Jeolla Province.

The police said that they sent two DNA samples as the body was badly decomposed when it was found. But questions linger about why it took so long ― nearly a month and a half ― to identify the body, and why it never occurred to investigators that the body could be Yoo’s, considering the site where it was found and evidence that apparently indicated it was him.

The body was discovered 2.5 kilometers from a country house where Yoo was believed to have been holed up. The police said they found three bottles of liquor beside the body and a bag containing handwritten letters with the phrase “Dreamlike Love.” “Dreamlike Love” is the title of a book of poetry published by Yoo. 
Investigators and journalists look at a lock of hair and bone fragments that police say were torn from the dead body of runaway Yoo Byung-eun (in circle) at a farm in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Suncheon police also said they found an empty bottle of shark liver oil, which the businessman was said to have taken for a while. It was reportedly manufactured by a pharmaceutical company led by his close aide. The body was clothed in a designer label winter jacket and shoes, items imported from Italy and Japan.

The police claimed they never imagined that the body could have been Yoo’s until the forensic experts confirmed the identity on Monday afternoon.

“We never suspected the body found near Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, on June 12 was Yoo’s and only learned (that it was his) after a DNA test result that came out on the afternoon of (July) 21,” said Lee Seong-han, commissioner of the Korea National Police Agency.

The police chief said the corpse had been suspected to be that of an unidentified elderly resident in the region and the DNA test was ordered to simply identify the body.

“The initial investigation was carried out with mistakes,” said Lee.

The body was transferred from Suncheon to the National Forensic Service in Seoul, to determine the cause and time of death. The police said on Tuesday afternoon that a toxicology test was being carried out to see whether Yoo killed himself by swallowing poisonous substances.

The confirmation put an end to a major, months-long search for Yoo, head of the family-controlled company that owned and operated the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16. The doomed ferry was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 high school students who were on a school trip to the resort island of Jejudo. The death toll stands at 294 with 10 victims still missing.

Shortly after the sinking, the prosecution issued summonses for Yoo and his family members. Yoo has no stake in Chonghaejin, the operator of the ferry. But the company has been run by his children and close aides. They were called in for questioning over alleged embezzlement and criminal negligence which was believed to have caused the sinking of the ferry.

Despite repeated requests by the prosecution, none of his family members, including Yoo himself, replied to the summonses. Yoo and his eldest son, Yoo Dae-kyun, fled as the authorities tried to capture them for disobeying the summonses. Tens of thousands of police officers and Army troops were deployed to search for the two fugitives.

Despite the police’s confirmation, some within the law enforcement agency raised suspicions that the body could not be that of Yoo.

“I am 110 percent sure that the decayed body is not that of Yoo, after years of experience in the field,” a police officer told Yonhap.

He was referring to the decomposition level of the body, saying that it looked as if it had been dead for at least six months. Yoo was last spotted on May 25 in the Suncheon area, he said. Pointing at the empty alcohol bottles, the officer said Yoo never drank, adding that it would be impossible for him to die alone in a field as he was known to have been constantly protected by followers of a religious cult established by his father-in-law.

Questions also remain over why it took so long for the authorities to identify the body.

According to reports and sources, the rivalry between the two law enforcement agencies ― the prosecution and the police ― may have delayed the identification since they refused to share Yoo’s DNA information with each other.

The two agencies reportedly collected DNA samples of Yoo separately from hideouts they raided over the last two months, as well as information that may have indicated Yoo’s next move.

By Cho Chung-un (

* 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.”