After hundreds died in South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster, Dateline gains unprecedented access to investigate the shipping company's mysterious owner.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - 21:30

More than 300 people, mostly teenagers, died when the Sewol ferry capsized in South Korea in April.

It quickly became apparent that the ferry was dangerously unstable with a poorly trained crew and that the botched rescue operation could have saved many more lives.

But what has emerged since is the web of intrigue surrounding the ferry company's owner, Yoo Byung-eun, and in particular the influence of his Evangelical Baptist Church, which is known as the Salvation Sect.

Mary Ann Jolley gets unprecedented access to the inner workings of the sect after its leader vanishes and a massive police search for him begins.

While the donations of his followers seem to have turned him into a billionaire with huge political influence, their support remains unwavering as they present their own alternative theory into the cause of the disaster.

And when he's found dead in unexplained circumstances, the mystery deepens, and grieving relatives ask if they'll ever find the full answers behind the Sewol tragedy.

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The sinking of a passenger ferry off the coast of South Korea earlier this year was without question that country's biggest civilian maritime disaster. With more than 300 people killed, most of them teenagers. With South Korea still reeling from the catastrophe, news channels there are running near constant coverage. The nation gripped by the hunt for the man behind the ferry company. He is what some call a god-like leader of a powerful religious cult, a conman who has amassed a billion dollar fortune. Mary Ann Jolley was given unprecedented access to members of his sect as the pursuit of their leader unfolded.

REPORTER: Mary Ann Jolley


EOM SO-YOUNG, MOTHER (Translation): This hat was the one he wore after he was born, this one is from when he started walking. This one is from primary school and this one he wore just before he went on his school trip.

Eom So-Young and her husband relive the memories of their son's short life. 16-year-old Sungho was their only child. He went off on a school excursion and never returned.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK, FATHER (Translation): We cry when we look at these things but my wife can't throw them away.

EOM SO-YOUNG (Translation): I still feel like he'll come home from his after-school class. I just... I just feel like he will come home soon. I don't want to accept it... I don't want to accept that he's now gone. I hope that he will return home one day... I even reactivated his phone.

Sungho was just one of the 250 teenagers who died when the Sewol ferry sank on its way to the resort island of Jeju. Desperate to piece together their son's last moments, his parents trawl social media sites for fragments of information. His final words were to his mother in an SMS.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): 10.06 a.m. He texted "œPlease don't worry." "œI will come back alive." That was the last message. This was 10:07 a.m. 10:07. So he was alive until then. He texted her because he was scared.

Why their son died now haunts their every moment.

EOM SO-YOUNG (Translation): However the accident occurred... they didn't rescue our children. I... blame those who didn't rescue them. I guess I am talking about the government. Yes, the government. If I could reveal my innermost feelings, I want to kill them all.

On April 15 this year, more than 450 passengers, most of them high school students, boarded the Sewol ferry at this port on the west coast of Korea. It was a foggy evening. The departure for the overnight journey was delayed two hours. Early the next morning, the ship struck trouble. It turned sharply and began to lift and sink. Commands for the students to stay in their cabins were broadcast over loud speakers by the ship's crew.

CREW (Translation): Do not move from where you are;

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): The ferry's sinking and they are laughing. That's my son.

But it soon became clear the ferry was doomed.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): The ferry is tilted now and I feel like vomiting. 'Are we going to die?' My son just asked that question. All these kids are dead. The students and even the teachers were told to stay where they were with their lifejackets on. That's why they stayed there, texting each other to meet again alive.

Students obeyed the orders to stay in their cabins, while the ship's captain and many of the crew were the first to be saved. Then unbelievably the parents were told their children had survived.


EOM SO-YOUNG (Translation): After an hour, there was news that the ferry had sunk and that all the students were rescued.

But in reality the rescue was in chaos and time was fast running out. If the passengers went into the water, hypothermia would set in within an hour.

PROFESSOR LEE SANG-YUN (Translation): When the accident happened, they should have reported it straight away. But the problem was, the Jeju Coast Guard thought the Sewol ferry was coming in. But the ferry didn't arrive within that time, so they called the high school to ask them. That's what's unbelievable.

Professor Lee Sang-Yun is one of South Korea's leading marine engineers and believes the rescue was disastrously incompetent.

PROFESSOR LEE SANG-YUN (Translation): Rescue efforts should have begun straight away. But the rescue service wasn't linked up with the Coast Guard. That's why they both acted independently.

As the death toll mounted, the outpouring of grief and anger in Korea amplified. President Park made a tearful apology to the nation.

PRESIDENT PARK (Translation): I'd like to again pray for the souls lost in this tragedy and I hope my message can bring comfort to the victim's families.

I took a 40 minute boat ride where the ferry sank. The police and navy are still standing guard. Months later the rescue continues. Bodies are still to be found. But as the vessel lies on its side on the sea floor more and more evidence is emerging that this man-made tragedy was caused by negligence, corruption and greed.

The site is now regarded as a crime scene. The prime suspect in the government's inquiry is the company that operated the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine, and its alleged chairman, Yoo Byung-eun.

YOO BYUNG-EUN (Translation): Can I show you a pose?

73-year-old Yoo Byung-eun is known in Korea as the billionaire with no face.

YOO BYUNG-EUN (Translation): In this world, there are not only honest people, there are also many dishonest people. This I know.

But wealthy businessman is just one of his identities. Here, he parades as a religious man addressing his flock. Members of the Evangelical Baptist Church, an organisation he founded in the 1960s. In Korea it's referred to as the Salvation Sect and widely considered by mainstream Christian authorities to be a cult, a claim the sect denies. Its doctrine is a bizarre mix of business and religion which its supreme leader, Yoo Byung-eun, has shamelessly exploited.

PROFESSOR TARK JI-IL, CULT EXPERT (Translation): Yoo Byung-eun told people about sin and that they were sinners and showed them how to be saved. As time went by, Yoo Byung-eun, became like a god. If this happened only within the church, that would be that. But when it comes to business, it becomes a reason for churchgoers to sacrifice themselves for the business.

I'm on my way to Yoo Byung-eun's Salvation Sect compound, two hours south of Seoul. He's disappeared and 9,000 police have been dispatched to search for him. It's the biggest man-hunt the country has ever known. I've been granted rare access to find out what the members think about their leader's involvement in the ferry disaster. At the compound, it's a Saturday - the day when the followers gather together. The sect claims there are 30,000 members in Korea and more than double that overseas, but experts say there's far fewer. Many here today feel under siege.

GIRL: I don't know what was the real fact why the Sewol sank. I don't know. But I don't think that all in all it's a reason to blame us as a church. I don't think at all. Whatever he did, it's not our church.

Yoo Byung-eun lived here until he went on the run soon after the ferry sinking. But a younger version of him is still preaching on the big screen. The leader's association with the tragedy has challenged the faith of the Salvation Sect's spokesman Lee Tae-Jong.

LEE TAE-JONG (Translation): A lot of people died in that accident, so I cried a lot. For God and their livelihood, the employees at that company had worked hard. When I found out that many people died in that accident, I was so shocked. I asked, why did this happen? God is supposed to be on our side but why did this happen? It made me wonder whether the employees were really the ones responsible for the accident.

PROFESSOR TARK JI-IL (Translation): The church members systemically tried to protect Yoo Byung-eun at the expense of their own lives. That's why Yoo Byung-eun's escape was possible.

Professor Tark Ji-Il studies Korean religious cults and says they use power and influence and it spreads throughout the Korean government.

PROFESSOR TARK JI-IL: He is a very successful businessman making a lot of money. He has distributed that money to the politicians and all the maybe the police. I think that is probably his insurance to protect himself to prepare for a case like the Sewol tragedy.

It was this horrific event that demonstrated the extent of used power inside the Korean government. In 1987, 32 members of an offshoot of Byung-eun's Salvation Sect died in what was first thought to be a mass suicide.

PROFESSOR TARK JI-IL (Translation): There appeared to be evidence of murder, not suicide. Nonetheless, all of the bodies were cremated two days later. No one can say this was a usual procedure.

Professor Tark believes the cult members were murdered, following a dispute about money allegedly transferred to one of Yoo Byung-eun's companies. But police inquiries came to an abrupt halt.

PROFESSOR TARK JI-IL (Translation): They were cremated in two days. Now how is that possible? If you look at the investigation there was a lot of concrete evidence. And the people that could talk about the incident were on the run. Were the prosecutors and police unable to arrest them? Or was it deliberate? Our guess is... When Yoo was a member of the financial advisory committee of the party established by the military dictatorship, he had a lot of influence in political circles.

Yoo Byung-eun was never charged over the murders but he did go to jail for fraud. Guilty of profiting from money collected from his sect. It would take a masterful stroke from the conman to reform his and the Salvation Sect's blackened image.

A decade after his conviction Yoo Byung-eun created a reputation for himself as an artist, producing these nature photographs. The window behind me is the one where Yoo Byung-eun says he shot 2.6 million photographs and he exhibited them in some of the world's most prestigious museums. Working under the pseudonym Ahae, he donated almost $9 million to the museums, money he collected from his followers.

LEE TAE-JONG (Translation): Personally, I saw it as an investment. Many people from the church bought his pictures. We hoped that when Ahae and his pictures became famous, the price of his pictures would go up. But now the government is saying these pictures are worth nothing.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): The money that they invested all seeped into the Yoo family coffers.

A former police investigator has become a TV star with blanket coverage in Korea of the Yoo Byung-eun case.

COMMENTATOR (Translation): There seems to be no end to the investigation into Yoo Byung-eun.

Chonghaejin Marine is now in receivership and the government is chasing the Yoo Byung-eun family's wealth, held in a labyrinth of companies and share holdings estimated to be worth around $240 million.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): If the Sewol tragedy had never occurred, an even bigger tragedy could have happened. And if the tragedy had never occurred, it is highly likely he'd have continued embezzling large sums and sending it overseas.

The captain of the ferry and three of its crew were charged with murder and their trial is continuing. Public anger boiled over when they appeared in court. But the ultimate responsibility for the disaster lies with the Salvationist executives of Chonghaejin Marine who operated a ship that violated every safety rule. Yoo Byung-eun was nowhere to be seen when the company apologised.

COMPANY APOLOGY (Translation): To the families, I would like to apologise sincerely for our wrongdoing. Our company will do our best to prevent any future loss of life. I am so sorry.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): The Chonghaejin Marine Company should have regularly trained their captain and crew to ensure that this ferry tragedy did not happen. But they didn't train them on a regular basis and they just allowed them to work without proper training.

The ferry captain seen here in a company video was not at the helm at the time of the accident. Instead, the ship was steered by an inexperienced 26-year-old. Loaded four times over its cargo capacity, and with ballast waters discharged to compensate, the ship was precariously unstable. And to make matters even worse, the cargo wasn't tied down.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): When they loaded the cargo, it should have been firmly fastened so that when the ship made a U-turn or when it moved the cargo wouldn't shift to the left or right. But instead they were negligent, so all these factors combined contributed to the capsize of the Sewol ferry.

Back at the Salvationist compound, spokesman Lee Tae-jong is bunkered down in a shipping container. He's spearheading the sect's own investigation.

LEE TAE-JONG (Translation): This is the object that is raising so many questions, Is this a container? Or is it another object?

They're looking at possible causes that would exonerate and save the Salvationists from a massive claim. After studying the radar journey, Mr Lee has a new theory - an underwater collision.

LEE TAE-JONG (Translation): I think the biggest possibility would be a submarine. I'm not certain because when it was underwater it wasn't caught on radar, so when the ferry arrived nothing came up on the radar, which is why the object must have been underwater.

PROFESSOR LEE SANG-YUN (Translation): The depth is only 35-40 metres, a sub needs over 50 metres. Even if someone ordered a sub to go there in an operation, the captain wouldn't go, as he and his crew would die. This is complete nonsense. Submarines... ridiculous

NEWSREADER: Moving on to South Korea. The head of the family owned company that operated the stricken passenger ferry Sewol is dead.

In an extraordinary twist of events, in the early hours of the morning on July 23, as the man-hunt continued, authorities announced Yoo Byung-eun was dead.

NEWSREADER: His badly decomposed body was found in scrubland in the southern part of the country. Police could not say when or how he died but they're sure the remains are his.

His body had been found in a plum orchard more than a month earlier but was so badly decomposed it had only just been identified.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): Yoo Byung-eun died in very mysterious circumstances, so that's why the whole nation is captivated by his death and wants to find out the true cause.

There are many questions unanswered. Was it murder or suicide? Why was a teetotaller found with bottles of alcohol nearby when he didn't drink? Was there an attempt to cover up a web of corruption involving high government officials? Many believe the sect believe that the body found in the orchard was not Byung-eun's.

LEE TAE-JONG (Translation): I think they found a homeless man's body and not Yoo Byung-eun's, so that's why they refrigerated it. But I think later on, while they were chasing Yoo Byung-eun, they arrested him elsewhere and he possibly died during the chase. Killing someone during a chase is extremely problematic and illegal. And so I think that's when they could have swapped the body.

BAEK KI-JONG (Translation): That is a definite no. What proved that the body found was Yoo Byung-eun's is the DNA. So it's absolutely certain that the body found was Yoo Byung-eun's. Hence, there is absolutely no way that his body was swapped with another person's.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): At first, I laid a chrysanthemum only in my child's memory. But these days, when I go to visit my child;Now they all feel like my own children. They are all my children. They were all beautiful. What a great loss. All of them.

For the family and loved ones of those who died, Yoo's death only adds to their concern about every aspect of this disaster.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): Maybe he is partly responsible for the accident, as the owner of the business. But there are too many other factors involved. If you keep digging into the information. What all Koreans want is the truth. So we're saying, don't try to hide it. Tell us the truth.

The families of the victims feel their government has failed them abysmally. The chaos of the rescue is being repeated in botched investigation. The prime minister, chief prosecutor and police commissioner have all been forced to resign. Millions of signatures are in these packages of petitions, demanding an independent investigation with judicial powers. For the parents, the pain of the loss of their precious children is not easing.

CHOI KYUNG-DEOK(Translation): I want to touch my son just once more. I wish I could touch him, I wish I could muck around with him. I wish I could tickle him for fun. I really want to touch him just once more.

EOM SO-YOUNG (Translation): I miss him... I want to cuddle him just once.

ANJALI RAO: Today prosecutors announced they'll be intensifying their hunt for Yoo Byung-eun's children. His wife, brother and eldest son are already in custody. His daughter is in prison in Paris fighting extradition back to South Korea. And his youngest son is still on the run in the US. For the latest on the investigation, follow the links on our website.






12th August 2014