Unsolved cases surge after sinking

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Unsolved cases surge after sinking

The wheels of justice have stalled in thousands of criminal cases over the few past months since a swath of police and prosecutors were dispatched to help hunt down the de facto owner of the Chonghaejin Marine Company, the operator of the sunken Sewol.

The prosecutors’ offices that led the investigation into the ferry disaster and 73-year-old Yoo Byung-eun, the owner of the company, saw a surge in the number of unresolved criminal cases since the maritime tragedy in April, according to a report released by the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

The April 16 disaster claimed the lives of more than 300 people, making it Korea’s worst maritime accident.

The report said the number of stalled cases in the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office doubled from April through June. The Incheon office is one of three main branches conducting the probe and manhunt.

The average number of unresolved cases between January and March stood at 3,989, but that figure rose to 6,099 in May and 7,193 in June.

The other two prosecutors’ offices, the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ Office and the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office, also experienced a more than 60 percent increase in the number of delayed cases.

Following a nationwide search for Yoo in May, around 5,000 police and prosecutors have been solely dedicated to locating the elusive business mogul, according to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

The prosecution is pursuing Yoo over allegations of his involvement in financial irregularities. Investigators also allege that he directed or covered up unfair business practices, such as overloading the Sewol ferry and excessively remodeling the ship at the expense of passengers’ safety.

Many of the unresolved cases concern fraud, embezzlement and other crimes that have been transferred from the police.

The staff shortage has triggered concerns that other criminal cases related to the public may go unnoticed.

The country’s top prosecutor encouraged the rapid arrest of Yoo yesterday while ensuring that any unsettled cases would be handled soon. Prosecutor General Kim Jin-tae issued the order yesterday at a meeting with senior prosecutors amid the prolonged manhunt for Yoo.

“I’d like to apologize. I regret that Yoo Byung-eun and his family members have not yet been captured, despite months of effort by a joint investigation team consisting of prosecutors, police and other government agencies,” Kim said.

“We currently need to review our method of investigation to see if there are any problems in our search efforts so far, and we need to outline what needs to be corrected and what can be done to make sure Yoo is arrested quickly,” the prosecutor-general said.

The chief prosecutor also asked other prosecutors to pay attention to investigating other criminal cases, saying that they must be handled swiftly. “Please put efforts into swiftly solving other general cases, as they equally matter,” he said.

But Kim also explained the reasons for the staff shortage.

“Since the ferry disaster, we have not only investigated the people associated with Yoo, but also any potential collusion between state regulators and private industries.”

The Park Geun-hye administration has vowed to eliminate rampant corruption in the government agencies that oversee industries following the Sewol’s sinking. Such corruption is believed to have been a factor in the tragedy.

“We had to send a lot of prosecutors to conduct a wide-ranging investigation,” Kim said.

“But I’d like to emphasize that we consider other cases equally important. So we will work on arranging personnel so that those cases can be handled in a proper way.”

So far, the joint investigation team has arrested and indicted more than 30 crew members, Chonghaejin Marine Company employees and key aides to Yoo. However, it has failed to bring the business mogul and his two sons to justice, even though authorities have raised the rewards for information leading to the patriarch’s arrest and that of his eldest son to 500 million won and 100 million won, respectively.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said that no more additional investigators will be assigned to carry out ferry-related investigations.

Meanwhile, the prosecution has decided to re-seek an arrest warrant for the fugitive owner of the sunken ferry in case they fail to catch him by next week. His arrest warrant is set to expire on July 22.

BY PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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