Body may be that of South Korean tycoon with ties to sunken ferry

South Korean coast guard crews search for passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol in the waters off the southern coast of South Korea in April.
South Korean coast guard crews search for passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol in the waters off the southern coast of South Korea in April.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

The body of South Korea’s most wanted man, a fugitive tycoon with ties to a ferry than sank in April, may have been found by police in a plum field in the country’s south, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Police said that a DNA sample taken from the body, discovered on June 12, matches one from the older brother of Yoo Byung-eun. Yoo is believed to be the owner of Cheonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the Sewol ferry, which sank in April, killing about 300 people.

Officials said the body was substantially decomposed and surrounded by liquor bottles.


“We need to look more closely into this, but the body is believed to be Yoo’s,” an unnamed official told Yonhap. The cause and timing of the death were not yet known.

Yoo, 73, who has been called the “millionaire without a face” for his reclusiveness, had ignored prosecutors’ summonses to appear for questioning on the ferry disaster and his role in the management of Cheonghaejin. Yoo was also facing charges on suspicion of embezzlement and corruption but had not been indicted, according to prosecutors.

The arrest warrant for Yoo was to expire Tuesday, and prosecutors were reportedly planning to seek another. Since May, a reward of about $490,000 was being offered for information leading to Yoo’s capture. His brother and wife have already been arrested.

When it left port April 15, the Sewol was dangerously overloaded. In 2012, the vessel was purchased from Japan by Cheonghaejin, and then refurbished to increase its capacity. Analysts have said that the refurbishment would have raised the ship’s center of gravity and made it more vulnerable to tipping over.

The ferry went down after leaving the mainland port of Incheon en route to Jeju island. Hundreds of high school students were among the passengers.

Prosecutors had raided the compound of the Evangelical Baptist Church, in Anseong, a city south of Seoul, in May and June but weren’t able to find Yoo. Officials had suspected Yoo of hiding out near Suncheon, in the south, where the body was found.


The Evangelical Baptist Church, a Christian sect of which Yoo is a senior member, is believed to own property in the area. Since the April sinking of the Sewol, police have staked out ports all around South Korea, suspecting that Yoo might attempt to flee the country as a stowaway on a ship.

The captain and crew of the Sewol are currently on trial, facing charges including murder and negligence causing death. Ten bodies are still missing from the Sewol sinking, and recovery efforts are ongoing.

Details of Yoo’s life are not well known, but his background indicates he was born in Japan when Korea was part of the Japanese empire. He went into business by taking over a textile company, then moving into toy manufacturing, and then shipping in the 1980s. Evangelical Baptist Church members have said that Yoo was revered within the sect because of his exceptional knowledge of Scripture but that he had no formal role in the church.

According to a public relations firm representing him, Yoo was no longer involved in business and was concentrating on his photography, which he did under the alias Ahae. A news release from the PR firm said Yoo had “devoted his last several years exclusively to his artistic endeavors.”

Borowiec is a special correspondent.