The South Korean public is questioning the validity of three separate investigations into the April ferry disaster, close to four months after the maritime accident.
The investigations have led to arrests and indictments. But the efforts have also raised fresh allegations that require, critics of the government say, further examination.
Prosecutors and police launched the first official probe into the ferry accident on April 18, only two days after the Sewol ferry had sunk in waters off the coast of southwestern Korea and left hundreds dead.
Lawmakers initiated an additional investigation in late May. As of Tuesday, another parliamentary investigation is set to begin once a controversial bill ― dubbed the “special Sewol bill” ― is legislated.
|Families of those killed in the April ferry disaster hold a press conference in front of the National Assembly on Tuesday. Victims’ families have demanded lawmakers legislate a special bill that would give prosecutorial powers to an inquiry panel to examine the causes of the Sewol accident. (Yonhap)|
Families of the victims have been the most impassioned critics of the probes. They are camped in front of the National Assembly building and also at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul to voice their discontent. Many of them have also been carrying out a hunger strike since mid-July.
Criminal investigations by law enforcement have led to the arrest of more than 130 people, officials have said. On May 15, the crew members of the ill-fated ferry were indicted for abandoning hundreds of passengers on the ship immediately after the accident and are undergoing trials. Prosecutors have also indicted shipping industry officials for chronically violating safety regulations. Public officials have also been arrested for allegedly receiving kickbacks from the private sector in return for condoning the violations.
Yoo Byung-eun has been the symbolic highlight of the criminal investigations. Yoo is the owner of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the shipper that operated the Sewol. Yoo and members of his family were charged with embezzling company funds which should have been used to enhance safety standards on the ship.
Yoo led police and prosecutors on the nation’s largest-ever manhunt for weeks. In late July the hunt came to an abrupt, embarrassing end.
An unidentified body that later turned out to be that of Yoo Byung-eun was found in June near the vacation home of the wanted man. Authorities only identified the body on July 22, sparking accusations of serious delinquencies among law enforcement officials. Korea National Police Agency chief Lee Sung-han resigned on Aug. 5 while a police spokesperson said investigations had been “imperfect.” Related investigations are still ongoing.
Lawmakers meanwhile in late May formed a special committee to investigate the government’s botched rescue operations on April 16.
The committee set out to examine allegations that senior government officials had made critical mistakes during the rescue operations, contributing to the disaster. The allegations even include those against President Park Geun-hye, whose whereabouts on the day of the accident remain unclear. Opposition lawmakers say the government’s chief executive should have taken firm control of the rescue ops.
But fierce political tension among lawmakers has fettered the panel. During one government hearing session on July 2, Rep. Cho Won-jin of the ruling Saenuri Party led a temporary boycott of the investigation after opposition Rep. Kim Kwang-jin made a controversial remark about President Park.
In yet another attempt to investigate the accident, lawmakers created a bipartisan task force to write the so-called “special Sewol bill” on July 11. The bill would create an inquiry panel for determining the causes of the accident.
Public reaction was mixed. Critics said the inquiry panel would be redundant. After all, they said, it would be the third of its kind ― a temporary committee investigating the April ferry disaster. Supporters of the bill said the panel was necessary since the two earlier investigations by prosecutors and lawmakers had produced little meaningful results.
As of Tuesday however leaders of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and Saenuri Party were still at loggerheads over the special bill.
The partisan friction centers on whether to give the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers ― special legal authority usually only given to prosecutors such as the right to ask judges for search warrants.
Opposition lawmakers and the victims’ families say the panel must be given such powers to guarantee a genuine investigation, which will have to investigate the highest of officials including the president. Saenuri lawmakers are against the idea. Prosecutorial powers must be given only to those who are trained to wield such authority, they say.
Public patience is winding down.
A Gallup Korea poll conducted in late July reported 64 percent of those surveyed believed that the causes of the accident have yet to be completely uncovered. About 66 percent said they didn’t trust the recent investigations.
Approximately 53 percent said an inquiry panel created by the special Sewol bill should be given prosecutorial powers.
“Why does the public have to be the one doing the begging?” Chung bong-ju, a former lawmaker said on Monday in protest of the ongoing investigations. “I think it’s time we ‘order’ our lawmakers to start doing their job.”
By Jeong Hunny (email@example.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 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.”