The strange saga of now-dead billionaire South Korean ferry owner Yoo Byung-un


A woman watches a TV news program on the reward poster of Yoo Byung-eun at the Seoul Train Station on May 26. (Lee Jin-man)

The fugitive and alleged owner of the South Korean ferry that sank in April and killed hundreds of children aboard was as mysterious in death as he was in life. The billionaire tycoon Yoo Byung-un founded the Web site God.com, led a church critics considered a cult, was once jailed for fraud, but only recently became internationally known as the focus of the largest manhunt in South Korean history.

Now that search, which once included 9,000 cops and was renewed on Monday, seems to have come to a close. South Korean police announced Tuesday morning they had determined that a previously discovered body, found on June 12, belonged to none other than Yoo Byung-un.

South Korean poice say a body found on June 12 is 73-year-old Yoo Byung-un, a billionaire sought in connection with the ferry that sunk in April, killing hundreds of children. (Reuters)

But the circumstances of that discovery stirred almost as many questions as Yoo did in life. According to the AP, he was found face up in an apricot orchard, dressed in expensive Italian clothing, decomposing. Spread around him was a bottle of squalene, a shark liver oil derivative sometimes used as moisturizer. Two bottles of Soju rice wine. A bottle of “peasant wine.” A magnifying glass. And an extra shirt.

How the 73-year-old died is unknown. Also unclear was why, if South Korean authorities have long had Yoo’s body, they apologized as recently as Monday for their failure to capture him.

Some 139 people, including the captain and crew of the ferry, have been arrested in relation to the ship’s sinking. While Yoo was sought in connection with the disaster, the charges against him — embezzlement, breach of trust and tax evasion — appeared more tangentially related. “I can’t help but wonder how this would play with the U.S. media if something similar happened here,” the tycoon’s publicist, Tony Knight, wrote in e-mail on June 16, days after Yoo’s body was apparently discovered.

Knight and Yoo’s organization — the Evangelical Baptist Church, often called a cult — perceived a “cover up.”

“I don’t know where he is,” confessed Knight, who issued to The Post nearly a dozen voluminous notes that included heavily annotated Korean newspaper clippings he said proved Yoo’s innocence in any number of Yoo-related scandals. “The Korean reports I sent you are also reputable outlets. … Here’s more — did I send you these before?”

He had. Three times, in fact. But the dedication the publicist evinced in his quest to disprove streams of media reports damning the Korean billionaire illustrated one of Yoo’s most remarkable traits: his ability to engender loyalty.

When thousands police arrived in June at his church compound, several members reportedly refused to grant them entry and threatened to die as martyrs. More than 200 others protested the police, chanted hymns and thrust their fists in the air. Others, meanwhile, dispensed organic ice cream, a widely known church-produced treat.

But where was Yoo? Nobody knew — even the two middle-aged women called “mamas” who had allegedly helped speed his escape.

Which, according to authorities, led him south to his vacation home — nestled near the orchard where Yoo would breathe his last while decked out in Italian finery.

Considering his drama-filled life, the drama of his demise is fitting. He was a mysterious figure — called the “millionaire with no face” — and made few public appearances. But he was apparently quite active despite his relative anonymity.


Followers sit before police outside the compound of Yoo Byung-Eun, a leading member of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, in Anseong, south of Seoul, on June 11.  (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Born in 1941 in Kyoto, Japan, he was a man of many interests, according to a bio released under a pseudonym, “Ahae.” “The Korean photographer Ahae,” the biography said, “can be described as an inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmental activist, martial artist, painter, sculptor, poet and photographer.”

The biography did, however, leave out a few details. Like his involvement in the Evangelical Baptist Church.

In 1987, 32 members of a group linked to the church committed suicide and were found bound and gagged at a Seoul factory. Yoo was investigated but cleared of all suspicion. “The suicide victims were not members of Mr. Yoo’s church,” Knight claimed, though numerous media reports said otherwise.

“Just wondering,” he wrote. “Are prosecutors on background telling reporters they think he was involved? The persistence of this is incredible.”

Another batch of allegations about where church funds landed Yoo in prison for four years for fraud. Yoo declared bankruptcy in 1997 — but nonetheless went on to build a leafy mountainside compound for his followers and get really into organic farming.

According to Reuters, things seemed to be going pretty well for Yoo — his photography company had just bought an abandoned French village — when the ferry sank. Investigators wanted to know whether its operating company, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., had cut any corners. Financial filings Reuters reviewed showed he didn’t have any stake in it. His sons, rather, owned the company through their investment group. Prosecutors nonetheless concluded Yoo was the top manager and claimed his purported financial misdealings had so strained the company’s finances that it skimped on safety training, contributing to the ferry’s sinking.

Now, South Korean authorities say Yoo is dead. “So far, we haven’t found any sign he was murdered,” a police chief said, according to the New York Times.

Yoo representatives didn’t return a request for comment.

Related:

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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