POSTED: 06:51 a.m. HST, May 23, 2014
SEOUL >> South Korea is offering a $50,000 reward for information about a mysterious missing billionaire who authorities say owns a ferry that sank last month, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.
The disappearance of Yoo Byung-eun and his son has caused a media frenzy in South Korea. Yoo is a member of a church that critics call a cult and have linked to a 1987 mass suicide; church members deny involvement.
Yoo, 73, was thought to be holed up in a sprawling church compound near Seoul, and there was a tense, dayslong standoff between police and hundreds of church followers, some of whom reportedly threatened to die as martyrs.
But Yoo wasn't there when church members on Wednesday finally opened the compound to authorities, and some speculated that he may have fled to the home of a church follower. Prosecutors and police then announced a 50 million won ($50,000) reward for information about Yoo's location, and 30 million won ($30,000) for details about his eldest son.
Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's current operator, Chonghaejin, allegedly still controls the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. Senior prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong said authorities believe Yoo is the chairman of Chonghaejin.
Yoo faces allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Prosecutors have said they suspect that the April 16 ferry sinking may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funneled profits to Yoo's family, and so failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel. His son, Yoo Dae-gyun, faces embezzlement allegations.
Chonghaejin's official leader, CEO Kim Han-sik, and four other employees have already been arrested. Officials suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster.
Officers at the National Police Agency said Friday that they have begun a massive manhunt to capture Yoo.
A special team of about 150 veteran detectives and police officers has been established. Tens of thousands of posters with photos of Yoo and his son and information about the rewards have been plastered on bus terminals, train stations and other public places, agency officials said. Officers who capture Yoo or his son will be promoted by one rank.
Yoo is said to be the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church, sometimes known as the Salvation Sect, and critics allege that church members call him "Moses." Church members deny that and say Yoo is just an ordinary member, although they acknowledge he has some influence because of his long affiliation with the church, which was founded by his father-in-law.
The church was in the news in 1987 when 32 people, then reportedly affiliated with a splinter group of the Salvation Sect, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. The deaths occurred as police investigated whether the splinter group's leader swindled money from more than 200 people.
Yoo later faced an investigation over the deaths. A probe into the dead people's financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared of suspicions that he was behind the suicides because of a lack of evidence, but he was convicted on a separate fraud charge that he collected donations from church members and invested them in his businesses.
Yoo founded Chonghaejin's predecessor, Semo Corp., in 1979. The conglomerate, which found success with businesses running cruises on Seoul's Han River, had firms involved in cosmetics, real estate, other domestic ferry businesses and shipbuilding. It once had nearly 3,000 employees. Semo went bankrupt amid the Asian foreign exchange crisis in the late 1990s.
Even after Semo's bankruptcy, Yoo's family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other companies, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin. The ferry businesses owned by Yoo's family suffered a slew of maritime accidents. In 1991, 14 Semo workers were killed when their cruise ship on the Han River was hit by another ship.
In recent years, Yoo has worked as a photographer under the name of "Ahae," and his works have been shown at the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Companies affiliated with Chonghaejin reportedly have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy his photographs.
Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Jung-yoon Choi contributed to this report.