Widow of South Korea ferry tycoon blamed for Sewol sinking gets suspended jail sentence

Rescue boats sail around the South Korean passenger ship 'Sewol' which sank, during their rescue operation in the sea off Jindo in this April 17, 2014 file photograph. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Rescue boats sail around the South Korean passenger ship 'Sewol' which sank, during their rescue operation in the sea off Jindo in this April 17, 2014 file photograph. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - The widow of the South Korean tycoon blamed for April's ferry disaster that killed more than 300 passengers has received a suspended 18-month jail sentence on Thursday for embezzlement.

Prosecutors indicted Kwon Yoon Ja, 71, for siphoning off some US$28 million (S$36.5 million) from a business group that owns Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ill-fated Sewol ferry. A district court in Incheon City also sentenced her brother Kwon Oh Kyun to five years in prison for pocketing the diverted funds.

Kwon Yoon Ja is the widow of Yoo Byung Eun, the late patriarch whose family controls Chonghaejin and its affiliates.

Their son, Yoo Dae Kyun, was sentenced last month to three years in prison for siphoning off some US$7.2 million from Chonghaejin Marine and its six sister companies between 2002 and late last year. Yoo Dae Kyun's uncle was also sentenced to two years for misfeasance in office last month. Yoo's sister, Yoo Sum Na, is currently fighting extradition from France on similar charges as his younger brother, who is still abroad and wanted by the police, is also linked to charges of embezzlement from the family-run conglomerate.

Following the ferry sinking, a manhunt was launched for the reclusive tycoon.

The badly decomposed body of the elder Yoo, who in addition to his substantial business interests also ran a religious group, was found in June. Post-mortem autopsy failed to determine the cause of his death.

Separately, Chonghaejin Marine chief executive Kim Han Sik was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month at a court in the southern city of Gwangju after being convicted of manslaughter over the disaster.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol was carrying 476 people - most of them high-school students on an organised trip - when the overloaded, ill-balanced ship commanded by what the court termed as an "incompetent" crew capsized off the southern coast on April 16.