Prosecutors chasing Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the operator of the sunken Sewol ferry, arrested four of the followers of his religious sect yesterday on suspicion of helping him escape from police.
A group of investigators raided residences of the adherents of the Evangelical Baptist Church, a Christian sect led by Yoo, between Saturday evening and yesterday morning, to arrest them. They questioned the followers on the whereabouts of Yoo and his eldest son, Yoo Dae-gyun, who have refused to be questioned on their management of the ferry’s operator, Chonghaejin Marine Company, since the tragic sinking.
Prosecutors said they confirmed the followers helped the 73-year-old Yoo run away from police arrest. On May 19, Yoo was allegedly snuck out of the church’s complex in Anseong, Gyeonggi, as policemen and reporters were blocked from entering the compound, called Geumsuwon, by followers assembled at the main gate for days. According to prosecutors, Yoo stayed in Suncheon, South Jeolla, after the escape from Geumsuwon.
Followers of the church, better known as Guwonpa or the Salvation Sect, said at the time they had no idea of the whereabouts of Yoo and they insisted that the church had nothing to do with the sinking of the ferry, which claimed more than 288 lives.
Nine days after prosecutors asked to search the compound in a remote and mountainous part of Anseong, the adherents finally opened the gates. But investigators didn’t find Yoo or his son. Investigators suspect that Yoo’s allegedly illegal business practices, such as overloading ships, led to the Sewol tragedy. Yoo and his son are also suspected of tax evasion and embezzlement.
Prosecutors have warned the public that even lending a cell phone or offering food to the absconding sect leader and businessman can be grounds for punishment.
After searching several possible hideouts, the prosecution raised the reward for anyone providing details on the whereabouts of Yoo to 500 million won ($487,567) from the 50 million won they announced last week and to 100 million won from 30 million won for details about his eldest son. The total reward of 600 million won is the biggest in a single criminal case, the prosecution said.
About 600 adherents of the church held a rally in front of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office yesterday to protest the arrest and questioning of their fellows. They claimed the arrested followers had nothing to do with Yoo’s escape and chanted slogans such as, “Prosecutors are violating human rights” and “Punish them for trespassing in private houses.”
Investigators are now worried that Yoo may have escaped abroad via ship. Yoo entered the ferry business in 1989 and his Semo Group grew into the biggest ferry operator by 1997, operating 27 ships. He has ties with many people in the shipping industry who could help him get to China, Japan, Russia or Southeast Asia. “As he previously ran a ferry business, he could attempt to stow away to get abroad anytime he wants,” a police official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “As he possesses several companies abroad, including in China, we see a possibility that he could flee abroad.”
BY KIM HEE-JIN[email@example.com]Correction and rebuttal statement by the Evangelical Baptist Church
The Korea JoongAng Daily, regarding the reports since April 16, 2014, about the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC) and Yoo Byung-eun, is publishing the following corrections and an excerpt from the rebuttal statement by the EBC.Correction
Through three past investigations by the prosecution, it has been revealed that Yoo and the EBC, also known as the “Salvation Group” and Guwonpa in Korean, are not related to the Odaeyang mass suicide incident. That was also confirmed by the prosecution in its official statement on May 21. The prosecution’s investigation also found that Yoo had not made an attempt to smuggle himself out of the country or seek political asylum in France. We, therefore, correct the concerned reports.
Yoo retired from his executive management position in 1997. He did not own any shares in the noted companies, nor had he managed operations or used the operating funds for personal reasons. There are no grounds to call him the actual owner and chairman of the company. As such, he did not provide any directives in regards to the overloading of the Sewol ferry or its renovation.
It was verified that the captain and crew members who abandoned ship at the time of the Sewol ferry accident are not members of the EBC. It has also been verified that the EBC does not own any shares of Chonghaejin Marine Company and did not engage in its management. Rebuttal statement
The EBC’s position is that the museums in the United States and Europe can never authorize an exhibition unless the artistic value of an artist’s works is recognized by the screening committee, irrespective of the amount of money an artist donates. The EBC’s position is that the exhibitions were not a result of Mr. Yoo’s patronage or donation, and Yoo also has not coerced Chonghaejin and its affiliates to purchase his photos.
The EBC states that Yoo did not participate in the foundation of the EBC in 1981, and the church does not offer him the title “pastor.” It also says a significant part of the 240 billion won ($206 million) worth of assets suspected of belonging to the Yoo family are real estate properties owned by the farming associations, which had been established by church members.
The EBC states that there are certain churches in Korea that call the EBC a cult, solely based on differences between their’s and the EBC’s doctrines.
But the EBC does not worship a particular individual as a religious sect leader or preach any doctrine that contradicts the Bible.