Mystery over death of Korean ferry disaster mogul

A woman passes by a wanted poster of Yoo Byung-eun, the fugitive owner of the sunken ferry Sewol. Picture: Getty

A woman passes by a wanted poster of Yoo Byung-eun, the fugitive owner of the sunken ferry Sewol. Picture: Getty

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THE cause of death of a tycoon linked to a ferry disaster in which 304 people died is impossible to determine, according to South Korea’s forensic agency – deepening the mystery surrounding the final days of the country’s most wanted man.

An autopsy and DNA tests on the badly decomposed body of Yoo Byung-un, 73, revealed no evidence of poison and there was also no indication of external trauma, forensic agency chief Seo Joong-seok said yesterday.

Yoo was found dead in a plum orchard on 12 June after eluding authorities for nearly two months following the capsize of the ferry MV Sewol on 16 April, most of whose passengers were children and teachers from a high school near Seoul.

Only 172 of the 476 people on board survived. It is thought the ferry was unstable, due to modifications ordered to increase its cargo by operator Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd. The crew were also said to be untrained.

It is believed Yoo – a founder of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea – spent his last days hiding behind the wall of a rural cabin while it was being searched by police.

His remains were only identified this week, 40 days after a farmer stumbled upon his corpse, stirring public anger at the failure to arrest Yoo alive.

“We are aware there are many questions and did our best, but it was impossible to determine the cause of death,” said Lee Han-young, a senior forensic agency official. “There was simply too much tissue damage.”

The autopsy found no evidence of trauma or strangulation, although his head was detached from the torso due to decomposition of his neck. Three empty bottles of rice wine, a bottle of shark liver oil one of his firms manufactured and a copy of a book he had written were found near the corpse in the Suncheon orchard.

Yoo headed the family that owned the operator of the ferry, which capsized off Incheon on the south coast en route to the holiday island of Jeju.

The disaster triggered outrage, especially when video footage emerged of crew members abandoning ship while the children stayed in their cabins as instructed.

The Sewol’s 15 surviving crew, including the captain, are on trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide.

Yoo was wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion but managed to elude arrest. His elder son, Yoo Dae-gyun, who was also wanted on suspicion of embezzlement, was captured in an apartment near Seoul. Several other family members, including Yoo’s 71-year-old wife and his brother, have been arrested.

Yoo Dae-gyun is one of two sons who co-owned the holding company at the centre of a business network that included the ferry operator. He was not believed to have been as involved in management as his younger brother, who is based in the United States.

Kang Shin-mong, a forensic expert at the Catholic University of Korea’s School of Medicine, said it was possible Yoo died of hypothermia, citing his age and a history of diabetes. Temperatures in the region where his body was found dipped to 12C at night in late May and early June.

The failure to determine how Yoo died, and how his body arrived where it was found, will add to pressure on police to arrest two associates accused of aiding his flight. A prosecutor resigned on Thursday over the failed hunt, which involved raids on church premises. Three police, including the chief of the region where Yoo’s body was found, were sacked this week.

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