Why South Koreans are skeptical over mysterious death of fugitive ferry owner (+video)

The surprise discovery of the body of the man alleged to own the Sewol ferry, which sank in April, killing 294, has triggered distrust among Koreans toward their government.

By , Contributor

South Korean police ended an unprecedented manhunt Tuesday without a live suspect, but with what they said was the body of the wealthy businessman wanted for months over the Sewol ferry disaster. 

The answer to the mystery of Yoo Byung-eun's whereabouts might have been expected to bring a measure of closure to a nation gripped by anger, disillusionment, and grief. Mr. Yoo is the alleged owner of the ferry that sank on April 16 with the loss of nearly 300 people, mostly high school students. Instead, the body's identification has unleashed skepticism and full-blown conspiracy theories from a public whose faith in public institutions was badly shaken by the disaster.

Police told local media Tuesday that the heavily decomposed body of Yoo, who had eluded arrest since May, had been identified through DNA and fingerprint testing after it was first discovered in a plum field on June 12 in Suncheon, some 250 miles south of Seoul. Local reports suggested that the body had been initially mistaken for a homeless person. They also said police did not suspect foul play in Yoo's death. 

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Korean internet users questioned how authorities could have taken some six weeks to realize they had found Yoo, a religious figure, artist, and businessman whose face was on wanted posters plastered across the country for months. They noted that the 73-year-old Yoo was a teetotaler according to his church, but his body was reportedly found surrounded by bottles of alcohol. Some even speculated that Yoo is alive and still on the run. 

Some South Koreans saw the news of the body's discovery as an attempt to direct attention away from a recent government bill to allow hospitals engage in greater profit-making activities, a controversial move in a country with a system of universal health insurance. 

“They didn’t identify the body in a timely manner despite finding it weeks ago. Then, they suddenly presented the finding at this important time,” says Song Yu-jin, an office worker in Seoul.  

Political consequences 

The drawn-out manhunt had been a growing source of embarrassment for President Park Geun-hye, whose reputation took a hit after an accident that, together with the rescue efforts, were seen as a national shame. Her Gallup poll approval rating hit a record low of 40 percent in early July, after two failed attempts to replace her prime minister.

“I think the government as a whole, the public sector as a whole, is losing the trust of people, especially since the Sewol accident this spring,” says Jung Yong-duck, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Conspiracy theories about major events are not uncommon in South Korea. The sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in 2010 sparked speculation of a government cover-up despite an international investigation concluding that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the vessel. 

Yoo allegedly controlled Cheonghaejin Marine Corp., the company which owned the ferry, and was the co-founder of the evangelical Salvation Sect. The authorities’ handling of his body has provided further ammunition for skeptics. While police told local media they had handed over the body to the National Forensic Service shortly after it was discovered, citizens and media questioned the delay in confirming its identity and whether the police and prosecution had properly shared information.

“In this case, we have seen a failure of cooperation among government institutions, between the police department and the prosecutors’ office. They have been competing with each other to get investigative rights, especially the police department wants to have some sort of investigation right,” says Yang Seung-ham, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, referencing a long drawn-out dispute between police and prosecutors.

While most Koreans will believe the official narrative of Yoo’s death, Mr. Yang says, the government still suffers from a trust deficit over its handling of the Sewol disaster. 

“They have to say the truth about this case,” he says. “Some people must have to take their responsibility and then the government, the presidential office, must show some sort of communication with the public about the malfunctioning government system.”

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