May 24, 2014

South Korean sect ends stand-off over Sewol ferry disaster

May 21, 2014
Financial Times
Simon Mundy and Song Jung-a in Anseong

A nine-day stand-off between South Korean law authorities and members of a religious cult ended peacefully on Wednesday, concluding one of the most bizarre episodes in the aftermath of April’s Sewol ferry disaster.

Hundreds of members of the Salvation Sect had been blocking the entrance to their vast compound in Anseong, 60km south of Seoul, to prevent prosecutors from seizing Yoo Byeong-eon, a senior figure in the religious group.

Prosecutors suspect Mr Yoo wielded effective control over Chonghaejin Marine, operator of the Sewol, through holding companies controlled by his sons. Mr Yoo denies this, saying that for the past decade he has concentrated on nothing but photographic art and has had no involvement with the ferry company.

The siege was broken on Wednesday after prosecutors won permission from a court to enter the complex by force if necessary. As 25 buses filled with riot police rolled up to the compound, Lee Tae-jong, a senior member of the cult, told members carrying anti-government slogans to stand aside and allow the prosecutors to pass through. But they found no sign of Mr Yoo, whom they believe to be hiding at the home of a cult member in Seoul.

Mr Lee told journalists the sect ended the stand-off after prosecutors gave formal reassurance that the cult was not implicated in a mass religious suicide in 1987, with which it has been linked in the media. That was the most notorious incident to stem from the proliferation of religious cults in South Korea over recent decades, which have often made fortunes for their founders, such as the late Unification Church leader Moon Sun-myung.

Cho Gye-woong, a member of the Salvation Sect, rejected claims Mr Yoo had made huge sums from its members by inducing them to buy his artworks. “Some church members may have bought some of his pictures because they liked them, but no one was forced to do it,” he said. “Mr Yoo is not like the holy God to us. He has not been involved in church activities for the past 10 years, except giving some advice on the management of organic farms.”

Kim Hoi-jong, a prosecutor involved in the Sewol case, declined to comment. However, South Korean media have cited prosecutors as saying that they are investigating Mr Yoo and his sons on suspicion of offences including tax evasion and embezzlement.

Prosecutors want to question Mr Yoo over allegations he personally authorised the addition of an extra floor to the Sewol, allegedly to create space for displays of his art. This may have left the ship dangerously unstable, possibly contributing to the April 16 sinking, in which 304 people died.

Mr Yoo ignored a summons from prosecutors, remaining hidden in the Salvation Sect compound where he claims to have taken 2.7m photos in four years. Over the past two years, Mr Yoo’s work has been shown twice at the Louvre in Paris, to which he made a €1.1m donation in 2012. That gift demonstrates Mr Yoo’s enduring wealth, despite the bankruptcy of his business group, Semo, in 1997.

Following Semo’s collapse, some of its major assets were folded into a new corporate structure based around holding companies that are controlled by Mr Yoo’s sons, who have also ignored summonses from prosecutors.

Chung Sun-seop, editor of, a website that analyses South Korea’s chaebol business groups, voiced doubt about Mr Yoo’s claims to have no involvement with Chonghaejin Marine. He cited prosecutors’ claims that Mr Yoo had received regular payments from the company, and the discovery of an internal organisational diagram apparently identifying him as the leader of the company.

“Although Mr Yoo does not own a stake in those companies, his sons control them through a holding company and he seems to be exerting his influence behind them,” he said. “This kind of shadow management through his children or close aides is not uncommon among chaebol companies.”