South Korea Sewol ferry disaster: wife of ‘most wanted’ businessman arrested

More than 300 people, most of them children, died in the disaster

The wife of South Korea’s most wanted man, a businessman linked to the ferry disaster in which hundreds of schoolchildren drowned, was arrested yesterday as the net tightened around the fugitive’s family.

Police and prosecutors arrested Kwon Yoon-ja, 72, on suspicion of embezzlement after chasing her for more than 20 days, an official said. Prosecutors and police are seeking Yoo Byung-un, 73, who has eluded one of the country’s biggest manhunts for more than a month. The husband of Mr Yoo’s younger sister, a former ambassador to the Czech Republic, was arrested on Friday on suspicion of helping Mr Yoo escape arrest.

Mr Yoo is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from a web of business holdings centred on I-One-I, an investment vehicle owned by his sons that ran the shipping company, Chonghaejin Marine.

Chonghaejin owned the Sewol, which sank off the southwest coast on 16 April killing more than 300 people, many of them schoolchildren, on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Authorities suspect Ms Kwon, who owns one of Mr Yoo’s subsidiary companies that sells health supplements, poured funds into companies owned by her husband and son.

Reporters bombarded her with questions yesterday – “Are you in contact with your husband?” “Do you plead guilty to all charges?” “Why have you been hiding?” “Do you know where your husband is?” She did not reply.

The sinking of the Sewol was a disaster that prompted a national outpouring of grief and anger, especially after some crew were caught on video abandoning ship while the children, following instructions, stayed in their cabins. Five Chonghaejin employees, including company boss Kim Han-sik, pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence in court on Friday. “I feel strongly about the responsibility I have as chief for an accident that caused massive casualties,” Yonhap news agency quoted Mr Kim as saying. “But I have doubts that it was my fault the ferry sank and left so many people dead.” 

Mr Yoo’s older brother, Yoo Byung-il, has been arrested on charges of embezzlement and violations of real estate laws. His daughter, Yoo Som-na, has been held in France after Interpol called for her arrest “for fraud and embezzlement”. Mr Yoo, a photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, was once jailed for fraud. The fact that he has evaded capture has become an embarrassment for authorities already under pressure for their handling of the disaster.

Police and prosecutors twice raided the compound of a religious sect he co-founded, using earth movers to search for tunnels, but to no avail. Authorities have offered a $500,000 reward for Mr Yoo, the maximum allowed for an individual in a criminal case. Lawyers for the 15 surviving crew of the Sewol, who face charges ranging from homicide to negligence, argued on Tuesday that it was up to the coastguard to rescue the passengers, not them.