SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean prosecutors investigating April's ferry disaster said on Tuesday the fugitive head of the family that owns the vessel had indirectly approached a foreign embassy in Seoul over asylum, but was rejected.
Briefing domestic reporters, prosecutors said an anonymous person had contacted the unidentified embassy last week on behalf of Yoo Byung Eun, 72. "The embassy rejected the request for asylum as (Yoo) is a criminal suspect," the Yonhap news agency quoted senior prosecutor Kim Hoe Jong as saying. It was not immediately clear on what basis the request for asylum had been made.
Yoo is the patriarch of the family behind Chonghaejin Marine Co - the owner and operator of the 6,825-tonne Sewol which capsized and sank on April 16 with the loss of around 300 lives - most of them school children. Yoo has been the target of a nationwide manhunt since he refused to respond to an official summons last month, and the authorities have offered a half-million dollar reward for information leading to his arrest. He is wanted for questioning on possible charges of embezzlement and criminal negligence, as prosecutors investigate the extent to which the Sewol disaster was caused by a lack of safety standards and regulatory violations.
Yoo has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, but his children and close aides control it through a complex web of holding companies. Five Chonghaejin officials have already been arrested. After Yoo ignored the summons, investigators raided a compound belonging to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, of which Yoo is a leading member, but failed to find him. Yoo has described himself as an artist and photographer and was once convicted of fraud when a company under his control went bankrupt.