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[Newsmaker] 'Real cause' of ferry disaster still elusive

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Published : 2014-07-28 21:16
Updated : 2015-05-28 10:55

Almost 15 weeks since the Sewol ferry sank in the West Sea, South Koreans still disagree as to what caused the disaster, with earlier prosecutorial and parliamentary investigations failing to produce conclusive explanations about the accident.

Lawmakers, scholars and victims’ families are saying an inquiry panel should be created to unearth the “real causes” of the disaster.

On July 12, lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties began to write a special bill to set up the panel. Lawmakers also promised to pass the bill, now widely known as the “special Sewol bill,” by July 16.

But as of Monday, the bill had failed to pass in the National Assembly, because of yet another partisan war over a particularly divisive clause.

The clause proposes giving members of the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers ― such as the right to ask judges for search warrants and to exercise indictment powers.

Ruling Saenuri Party legislators reject such proposals. Saenuri lawmakers say giving the panel such powers would go against criminal laws and even the Constitution.
Main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Kim Han-gil criticizes the ruling Saenuri Party at a demonstration in downtown Seoul on Monday. The NPAD supports empowering an inquriy panel with prosecutorial powers to investigate the April ferry accident. The Saenuri Party opposes the proposal. (Lee Gil-dong/The Korea Herald)

Opposition lawmakers and families support empowering panel members with prosecutorial authority. Otherwise, they say, the panel will fail to nose out the causes of the Sewol tragedy, just like earlier investigations by prosecutors and lawmakers have done.

Public opinion is likewise divided. Critics of the clause ask why an inquiry panel should have indictment powers. This would set a dangerous legal precedent that gives overreaching authority to random people, they say. The panel could become a witch-hunt, some Saenuri officials said.

On Monday, legal scholars and relatives of the victims held a press briefing in front of the National Assembly, urging the swift passage of the bill. They supported giving the panel prosecutorial powers.

“According to the Constitution, the reason the Republic Of Korea government exists, is to provide for the well being of us, and our children,” Han Sang-hie, professor of constitutional law at Konkuk University Law School, said. “I cannot help but ask what the government is doing now, with lawmakers and the president failing to tell us why the accident happened.”

“Current laws specify that prosecutors have the right to ask for warrants. They do not put a limit on whom to give other prosecutorial powers,” Lee Ho-joong, professor of criminal law at Sogang University, said.

About 230 legal professionals cosigned the statement.

Earlier prosecutorial and parliamentary investigations looking into the April disaster succeeded in raising more allegations than they resolved.

Prosecutors said a wide network of financial corruption within Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of Sewol, contributed to the accident, in addition to the 15 crew members of the Sewol who abandoned ship after telling passengers to stay aboard the sinking vessel on April 16.

But who was involved in the alleged corruption and for what reasons remain mysteries after Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of Chonghaejin, was found dead. With police officials and forensics experts still unsure as to the cause of Yoo’s death, suspicions are rising that officials are staging a show to appease the public.

An independent parliamentary investigation aiming to determine the causes of the Sewol sinking has also failed.

Political divisions have interrupted the investigations, with lawmakers from both the opposition and ruling parties “using” the investigations according to critics.

Opposition lawmakers demanded that senior government officials “resign” while Saenuri lawmakers at times boycotted the investigations for apparently political reasons.

With 294 dead and 10 bodies still unaccounted for, the accident is considered one of the nation’s worst man-made disasters. Lawmakers thus far have failed to pass promised legislation that would help prevent similar accidents in the future.

By Jeong Hunny (hj257@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.”