The nationwide manhunt for a fugitive tycoon, known to be the de facto owner of the Sewol, ended Tuesday, when the police confirmed that a body found last month was that of Yoo Byung-eun.
The death of South Korea's most wanted man, however, remains a mystery as the authorities are still struggling to determine exactly when and how he died. The fugitive’s death is also shrouded in secrecy as the police identified the body as Yoo’s nearly six weeks after it was found by a farmer in a plum orchard near Suncheon, South Jeolla Province.
The police said they sent two DNA samples as the body was badly decomposed when it was found. But questions linger about why it took so long ― nearly a month and a half ― to identify the body, and why it never occurred to investigators that the body could be Yoo’s, considering the site where it was found and evidence that apparently indicated it was him.
The body was discovered 2.5 kilometres from a country house where Yoo was believed to have been holed up. The police said they found three bottles of liquor beside the body and a bag containing handwritten letters with the phrase “Dreamlike Love”. “Dreamlike Love” is the title of a book of poetry published by Yoo.
Suncheon police also said they found an empty bottle of shark liver oil, which the businessman was said to have taken for a while. It was reportedly manufactured by a pharmaceutical company led by his close aide. The body was clothed in a designer label winter jacket and shoes, items imported from Italy and Japan.
The police claimed they never imagined that the body could have been Yoo’s until the forensic experts confirmed the identity on Monday afternoon.
“We never suspected the body found near Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, on June 12 was Yoo’s and only learned (that it was his) after a DNA test result that came out on the afternoon of (July) 21,” said Lee Seong-han, commissioner of the Korea National Police Agency.
The police chief said the corpse had been suspected to be that of an unidentified elderly resident in the region and the DNA test was ordered to simply identify the body.
“The initial investigation was carried out with mistakes,” said Lee.
The body was transferred from Suncheon to the National Forensic Service in Seoul, to determine the cause and time of death. The police said on Tuesday afternoon that a toxicology test was being carried out to see whether Yoo killed himself by swallowing poisonous substances.
The confirmation put an end to a major, months-long search for Yoo, head of the family-controlled company that owned and operated the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16. The doomed ferry was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 high school students who were on a school trip to the resort island of Jejudo. The death toll stands at 294 with 10 victims still missing.
Shortly after the sinking, the prosecution issued summonses for Yoo and his family members. Yoo has no stake in Chonghaejin, the operator of the ferry. But the company has been run by his children and close aides. They were called in for questioning over alleged embezzlement and criminal negligence which was believed to have caused the sinking of the ferry.
Despite repeated requests by the prosecution, none of his family members, including Yoo himself, replied to the summonses. Yoo and his eldest son, Yoo Dae-kyun, fled as the authorities tried to capture them for disobeying the summonses. Tens of thousands of police officers and Army troops were deployed to search for the two fugitives.
Despite the police’s confirmation, some within the law enforcement agency raised suspicions that the body could not be that of Yoo.
“I am 110 per cent sure that the decayed body is not that of Yoo, after years of experience in the field,” a police officer told Yonhap.
He was referring to the decomposition level of the body, saying that it looked as if it had been dead for at least six months. Yoo was last spotted on May 25 in the Suncheon area, he said. Pointing at the empty alcohol bottles, the officer said Yoo never drank, adding that it would be impossible for him to die alone in a field as he was known to have been constantly protected by followers of a religious cult established by his father-in-law.
Questions also remain over why it took so long for the authorities to identify the body.
According to reports and sources, the rivalry between the two law enforcement agencies ― the prosecution and the police ― may have delayed the identification since they refused to share Yoo’s DNA information with each other.
The two agencies reportedly collected DNA samples of Yoo separately from hideouts they raided over the last two months, as well as information that may have indicated Yoo’s next move.
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