Police confirm Sewol owner’s death

By Kim Yon-se
  • Published : Jul 22, 2014 - 21:40
  • Updated : May 27, 2015 - 16:57
The police confirmed Tuesday that a dead body, found by a farmer in South Jeolla Province on June 12, is that of Yoo Byung-eun, owner of the capsized ferry Sewol.

Investigators identified the body through fingerprint comparison and DNA samples, Suncheon Police Station chief Woo Hyung-ho said at a news briefing.

Woo said the fingerprints match those of the 73-year-old fugitive and DNA samples approximately match those of his older brother, Byung-il. The older Yoo had been taken into custody for allegedly pocketing funds from affiliates of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ill-fated ferry.

Woo admitted that the police had been somewhat negligent in investigating the body when the plum field owner notified the investigative agency about the body in early June.
Investigators move the body confirmed by police to be that of the ill-fated Sewol operator Yoo Byung-eun into an ambulance at a hospital in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. The body was handed over to the Seoul unit of the National Forensic Service. (Yonhap)

Though the corpse was delivered to a hospital in Suncheon right after the farmer reported it, a lock of hair and some bone fragments from the remains were found to have been left in the field for more than a month, during which time police allegedly failed to identify the body due to the advanced state of decay.

Police and the prosecution said they were waiting for the final results from the National Forensic Service, which is conducting a DNA test on the body.

Reportedly, investigators at that time ― or several days or weeks after the farmer’s notification ― sent DNA samples from the body, but not the whole corpse, to a regional forensic agency in a standard manner to identify the corpse.

Insiders raised the possibility that investigators may have regarded the body as that of an elderly resident from the provincial district.

Investigators had reportedly told the plum farm owner that the body “seemed to be an ordinary homeless person.”

But law enforcement agencies ― reportedly unexpectedly ― were informed by the National Forensic Service late Monday, (about 40 days after the farmer’s report,) that the body could be that of Yoo.

The dubious situation is widening the speculation that investigators sent the DNA sample of the body to the forensic agency “not immediately after the June 12 report but recently.”

Early Tuesday, the hospital handed the corpse over to the Seoul unit of the National Forensic Service, based in Wonju, Gangwon Province.

“Should the forensic agency further reiterate its research position that the body is that of Yoo, the prosecution is expected to halt its full-fledged effort to indict him,” an investigator said.

The forensic agency, which secured the body on Tuesday, said it had found “no trace of murder.” But it had yet to clarify its final stance as of 7 p.m.

Some netizens are denouncing the prosecution for not securing the body immediately after it was found by the farm owner in early June. The prosecution, which saw the initial warrant for Yoo expire, again asked the Incheon District Court to issue a second arrest warrant on Monday, vowing to capture him in the coming months.

Some Internet users have cast a series of doubts, saying that they do not trust the authorities or their remarks. They cited suspicious investigative results and a lack of evidence. “How could policemen at that time fail to recognize the nation’s most wanted (criminal), Yoo Byung-eun? It is unreasonable for a body to decompose to an unrecognizable level in only three weeks.”

But renowned criminal profiler Pyo Chang-won echoed the view of police, citing factors for severe decay such as high temperature, humidity and rapidly multiplying bacteria. The former professor of the Korean National Police University alleged that some of Yoo’s aides, who were accompanying him during his flight, might have eventually deserted him.

On an aired program, Pyo and lawyer Yang Ji-yeol dismissed the possibility that the runaway committed suicide. The two criminal affair pundits highlighted a memo written by Yoo, and recently obtained by the prosecution, in which he sneered at law enforcement authorities.

Both of them raised the scenario that Yoo died a natural death from hypothermia.

A Seoul-based lawyer said he had not ruled out the possibility that Yoo’s aides offered him poisoned water or other drinks.

A spokesman for the Salvation Sect, which was led by the ferry owner, downplayed the announcement that the body is really that of Yoo. He was quoted by a news provider as saying that the corpse appears not to be Yoo “in consideration of a variety of circumstances (involving the estimated time of death of the unidentified figure).”

While police said that some liquor bottles were also discovered near the dead body, the religious sect’s spokesman stressed that he is a teetotaler.

Meanwhile, there are speculations that the nationwide manhunt for their religious leader and the variety of misconduct committed by the Yoo family, revealed over the past few months, could have weakened many devotees’ faith in Yoo and the sect.

Later in the day, the National Police Agency discharged Suncheon Police Station chief Woo from his post and hinted that more senior officers would also be held accountable for lax probes.

Yoo has been suspected of overlooking the risks of overloading the Sewol vessel with freight early this year, even though the ferry had a weakened ability to recover left-and-right balance when turning, due to a renovation that added more cabins to the vessel.

The irregularity-saddled business tycoon escaped after the April 16 sinking disaster, which had a death toll of 294 as of July 22.

By Kim Yon-se (

* 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.”