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South Korea ferry disaster: Civilian divers scouring the Sewol wreckage are being ‘paid by the body’, presidential office suggests

Comments made to journalists in Jindo spark new wave of public outrage

A spokesperson for the South Korean president has sparked further controversy over the sinking of the Sewol ferry by apparently suggesting that civilian divers are being paid “by the body” for their work in the recovery effort.

Speaking at a press event on the island of Jindo, near where the ferry sank on 16 April, Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook reportedly said the government had agreed a deal with private companies where they get a fee up front and then further bonuses for each corpse recovered.

Min was quoted by the state-run Yonhap news agency as telling reporters: “Civilian divers are paid 1 million won (£580) per day and 5 million won (£2,900) for retrieving each dead body.”

Of the 476 people who were on board the Sewol when it sank, 288 have been confirmed dead. Teams of civilian and military divers are still searching for 16 people listed as missing.

The government of President Park Geun-hye has already faced on outpouring of public anger amid claims more could have been done to save lives, and Min’s alleged comments provoked a further storm of criticism online.

Undine Marine Industries, a private company appointed by the government to lead the search effort, has reportedly denied being paid because, a spokesperson was quoted as saying, human life “cannot be measured by money”.

Some divers have previously said they are giving up their time voluntarily, and a representative yesterday told the Korea Times the claims of a “pay-per-body” system were “insulting” and untrue.

Bae Hui-cheol, a lawyer representing the family emergency committee in Jindo, said the families of those missing were “incredulous” but refused to comment further because there was no official recording of what Min actually said.

“If the spokesman’s words are true,” one Twitter user was quoted as saying, a parliamentary investigation must be conducted on Choeng Wa Dae [the presidential office] as well.”

Meanwhile, South Korean police confirmed they have offered an official bounty of half a million dollars (£300,000) for information about the billionaire Yoo Byung-eun, who prosecutors say owned the sunken ferry and has since fled.

Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's current operator, Chonghaejin, allegedly still controls the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. Senior prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong said authorities believe Yoo is the chairman of Chonghaejin.

Five Chonghaejin employees have already been arrested, after the authorities said they suspect improper stowage and the overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster.

Prosecutors earlier this month indicted 15 crew members tasked with the ship's navigation, four of whom will face charges of manslaughter.