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Police believe Yoo died from hypothermia

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Published : 2014-08-19 21:13
Updated : 2015-05-27 18:43

Investigators on Tuesday raised the possibility that Yoo Byung-eun, the late owner of the Sewol ferry, died from hypothermia.

During a news briefing over the whereabouts of the late Yoo, who was found dead in a South Jeolla Province city by a farmer on June 12, the police dismissed the possibility that the fugitive could have been murdered.

“No clue or evidence that would back up the scenario that Yoo Byung-eun’s death was due to a crime has been found,” investigators said in a briefing at the Suncheon District Prosecutors’ Office.

Though the police estimated that Yoo could have died from hypothermia, they again failed to determine the cause of his death despite extraordinary investigation into the case and searches around Suncheon, where his corpse was discovered.
The plum orchard in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, where Yoo Byung-eun`s body was found in June. (Yonhap)

Investigators only cited opinions from some forensic doctors, who said it was feasible that Yoo died a natural death in the wake of low temperatures after hiding on a mountain by himself.

Police, however, failed to explain whether Yoo was intentionally deserted by his aides as his initial getaway was allegedly made with key devotees of the Salvation Sect, which was led by the Sewol owner.

Some pundits allege that there has been a power struggle among core leaders of the Salvation Sect, particularly after the April 16 sinking disaster. They stressed that the law enforcement authorities should continue to probe into the sect, which is considered to be financial malfeasance-ridden heresy.

They suggested that the police as well as the prosecution might have given up tracing the irregular economic arrangements of Yoo, who had reportedly glossed over the weakened safety of the Sewol ferry, by only arresting his oldest son Dae-kyoon and some aides at home.

The prosecution has yet to capture any family members or confidants of Yoo overseas. This includes Yoo Hyuk-kee, 42, the Sewol owner’s second son, and Kim Hea-kyung, 52, head of Hankook Pharm Co., a key unit of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the business group that operated the Sewol.

Commentator Hwang Tae-soon stressed that taxpayers would bear the burden of making up for a variety of damages from the April 16 sinking disaster if the prosecution gives up tracing Yoo’s wealth hidden in borrowed accounts.

He said the authorities should freeze more assets held by Yoo’s family and the Salvation Sect to hold them accountable for the disaster, which was reportedly triggered by a reckless expansion of cabins.

There are allegations that Chonghaejin Marine had offered kickbacks to a variety of agencies in an attempt to conceal the expansion and garner a certificate of ferry operation. The Sewol operator is also suspected of engaging in dubious cross-funding with its subsidiaries and affiliates.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@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.”