South Korea ferry disaster: Jail term demanded for son of ferry's owner

This aerial handout file photo by the South Korea Coast Guard taken at sea some 20 kilometres off the island of Byungpoong in Jindo on April 16, 2014, shows coast guard members searching for passengers near a South Korean ferry (centre) that capsized
This aerial handout file photo by the South Korea Coast Guard taken at sea some 20 kilometres off the island of Byungpoong in Jindo on April 16, 2014, shows coast guard members searching for passengers near a South Korean ferry (centre) that capsized on its way to Jeju island from Incheon. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - The eldest son of the South Korean tycoon blamed for April's ferry disaster appeared in court on Wednesday on embezzlement charges, in the first court appearance by any member of the reclusive billionaire family on charges linked to the Sewol ferry disaster.

Prosecutors have called for a four year sentence for Yoo Dae Kyun, 44, who has been charged with syphoning off more than US$7 million (S$8.93 million) from Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the stricken ferry that sank in April, and its six sister companies between 2002 and late last year.

Three other family members - Yoo's mother and two uncles - have also been arrested on charges of embezzlement from the business group. Yoo's sister Yoo Sum-Na, 48, is currently fighting extradition from France on similar charges.

"I am sorry," Yoo said to the court before bowing to the judge, the prosecutors and the audience in turn. Yoo's defence lawyer has called for leniency in the sentencing, expected on Nov 5. "The accused has a deep remorse over his wrongdoings and he has been praying for the dead victims," he told the court.

The defence lawyer was later quoted by the Yonhap news agency saying that Yoo will divest to provide compensation for the disaster's victims.

"The accused will dispose of all his assets to help compensate for the victims," he said according to the news agency.

Prosecutors are also questioning one of the late Yoo's key aides - who was repatriated from the US on Tuesday - over assets the Yoo family may be hiding.

Kim Hae Kyung, 52, who was arrested in Virginia in September, is suspected of involvement in the embezzlement of about US$23 million from the religious organisation headed by Yoo's father.

The overloading of cargo on the Sewol and an illegal redesign has been blamed for the April disaster in which the ferry sank off South Korea's southern coast, claiming more than 300 lives - most of them schoolchildren.

The badly decomposed body of Yoo's father, Yoo Byung Eun, who in addition to his substantial business interests also ran a religious group, was found in June. He had been the target of a massive manhunt connected to the ferry sinking.

The ship's captain - currently on trial for murder in the city of Gwangju - has insisted that the ferry owners are the real culprits of the disaster as it was their decision to consistently overload the vessel.

The Sewol ferry disaster rocked South Korea and triggered a wave of anti-establishment feeling as investigations showed that greed, corruption and a lack of proper oversight had contributed to the tragedy.