SEOUL: South Korean police said Tuesday they had found the body of the fugitive business tycoon who headed the family operating the Sewol ferry which sank in April with the loss of around 300 lives.
Yoo Byung-Eun had been the target of an unprecedented, months-long manhunt involving tens of thousands of police officers and army troops who set up checkpoints on roads and at ports, and raided a number of properties linked to the reclusive billionaire.
The body later identified as Yoo’s was actually found nearly six weeks ago on June 12, lying in a field just outside the city of in Suncheon, 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Seoul.
Discovered by a local resident, the body was so badly decomposed as to be unrecognisable, and it was only after a DNA test that the match with Yoo was made.
After weeks of technical treatment on the body, forensic experts eventually managed to lift a print from one of the index fingers which confirmed Yoo’s identity.
Suncheon police chief Woo Hyung-Ho told reporters that the body was too decomposed to ascertain the cause of death, although several empty bottles of alcohol were found at the scene.
We do not know yet whether it was a homicide or a suicide,” Woo said.
“We are hoping that more detailed forensic analysis will shed light on this and on the exact time of death,” he said, adding that a toxicology test was being carried out.
The body was found lying face up and clothed in a winter jacket.
Yoo was the patriarch of the family behind Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16 with 476 people on board, including 325 high school children.
The number of confirmed dead currently stands at 294, with 10 victims still unaccounted for.
The disaster stunned South Korea, knocking the entire country off its stride and triggering public outrage as it emerged that incompetence, corruption and greed had all contributed to the scale of the disaster.
A summons was issued for Yoo shortly after the sinking, but he refused to surrender to police and eventually went on the run.
A reward of 500 million won ($490,000) was offered for information leading to his capture, and 100 million won for that of his eldest son, Yoo Dae-Kyun who is still absconding.
Yoo has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, but his children and close aides control it through a complex web of holding companies.
He was wanted for questioning on possible charges of embezzlement and criminal negligence, related to lax safety standards and regulatory violations.
The failure to capture Yoo had fuelled complaints of police inefficiency and intensified pressure on President Park Geun-Hye whose administration was deeply criticised for its response to the Sewol tragedy.
Many of Yoo’s family members have been arrested, including his wife and his brother. A daughter is fighting an extradition bid from Paris.
Earlier this month, South Korean prosecutors filed embezzlement charges against his 71-year-old wife, Kwon Yun-Ja.
The charges were unrelated to the ferry sinking, and involved the alleged embezzlement of money from a splinter religious group, the Evangelical Baptist Church, established by Kwon’s father.
In June, thousands of police officers conducted a raid on the church’s main complex but came away empty-handed.
In 1992, Yoo was sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges related to the misuse of church funds.
While in prison, he wrote an autobiography — a copy of which was found in a bag near Yoo’s body, police said.
The captain and 14 surviving crew members of the Sewol are currently on trial, some of them on charges of wilful homicide which carry the death penalty.