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South Korea ferry disaster: Manhunt launched for mystery billionaire owner of sunken ship

Authorities offer $50,000 reward for information on the whereabouts of Yoo Byung-eun

The disappearance of a mysterious billionaire thought to own the ferry that sank last month, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing, has prompted authorities in South Korea to offer a $50,000 (£29,000) reward for information about his whereabouts.

The disappearance of Yoo Byung-eun and his son has caused a media frenzy in South Korea. Yoo is a member of a church that critics call a cult and have linked to a 1987 mass suicide. Yoo, 73, was thought to be holed up in a sprawling church compound near Seoul and there was a tense standoff between police and hundreds of church followers, some of whom reportedly threatened to die as martyrs. But Yoo was not there when church members finally opened the compound to authorities on Wednesday.

Some speculated that he may have fled to the home of a church follower. Prosecutors and police then announced the reward for information about Yoo’s location and $30,000 (£17,800) for details about his eldest son.


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.

Yoo faces allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Prosecutors have said they suspect that the sinking on 16 April may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funnelled profits to Yoo’s family and so failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel. His son, Yoo Dae-gyun, faces embezzlement allegations. Chonghaejin’s official leader, CEO Kim Han-sik, and four other employees have already been arrested.

Billionaire Yoo Byung-Eun, who has mysteriously disappeared (AP)

Officials suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster. Tens of thousands of posters of Yoo and his son have been put up all over South Korea. Officers who capture either of the men will be promoted by one rank.

Yoo is said to be the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church, sometimes known as the Salvation Sect, and critics allege that church members call him “Moses”.

Church members deny that and say Yoo is an ordinary member, but admit he has some influence, as the church was founded by his father-in-law.