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(LEAD) Prosecution looks into cult in ferry accident probe

All Headlines 17:50 April 24, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with probe results in 6-7, 14-21 paras; ADDS photo)

INCHEON/BUSAN, April 24 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutors said Thursday they are tracking a flow of money from a mysterious religious group to the operator of a capsized ferry, as part of their widening investigation into the cause of the deadly accident.

Prosecutors suspect that funds from members of the religious group, the Evangelical Baptist Church, were used in business operations of Cheonghaejin Marine Co. and Yoo Byung-eun, a billionaire man whose family appears to control the shipping company.

Eight days after the deadly sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol in southwestern waters, which is likely to be recorded as one of the country's worst maritime disasters, at least 171 passengers have been confirmed dead, with some 130 others still missing.

On Wednesday, investigators of the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office raided the head office of Cheonghaejin Marine, the Sewol's operator based in the coastal city of Incheon, just west of Seoul, and some 20 offices of its affiliates, as well as the office of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Yongsan, central Seoul.

Prosecutors said they are analyzing accounting books seized from the church, suspecting that the religious group has exercised influence over the company's management.

An accounting staff member of the church, whose identity has been withheld, was called in by prosecutors Thursday to face questioning as a witness, prosecutors said.

"We called in the staffer to confirm allegations raised so far and details regarding the investigation," said an investigator.

The church was established by chief Yoo's father-in-law, Kwon Sin-chan, in the 1960s and is led by Yoo. It is widely considered a cult, with its some 20,000 followers including most of the senior officials of Cheonghaejin's affiliates and most of the Sewol's crew.

Yoo was also previously a member of the religious cult called Odaeyang, making him a suspect in the cult's 1987 mass suicide-murder. More than 30 people from his group were found dead, bound and gagged in a factory outside of Seoul. Investigators, however, found no evidence tying the event to Yoo.

While establishing 13 overseas units, along with another 13 domestic affiliates, the owner family was found to increase its fortune to more than 240 billion won (US$230.8 million), with more assets expected to be hidden.

The debt-ridden Cheonghaejin Marine is virtually a successor to Semo Marine, which went bankrupt in 1997, hit by a series of scandals, including a sinking of its cruise boat.

Cheonghaejin was set up in 1999 by taking over ships and assets held by Semo Marine's affiliate. Yoo's two sons control Cheonghaejin through a complicated ownership structure.

Some 40 percent of Cheonghaejin is owned by Chonhaiji Co., a shipbuilder controlled by I-One-I Holdings Co. Yoo's two sons hold a combined 40 percent in I-One-I Holdings.

Prosecutors said that they have raided another ferry owned and operated by Cheonghaejin Marine as part of their ongoing investigation.

The Ohamana, the ferry that plied the same Incheon and southern island of Jeju route as the Sewol, has also had engine trouble while at sea twice in the past few years. Allegations also have arisen over the possible overloading of the Ohamana.

Prosecutors also raided offices of a private entity responsible for inspecting and certifying ships, as part of their investigation into corruption in the shipping industry.

Investigators swooped on the head office of the Korean Register of Shipping (KR), a nonprofit organization in charge of inspecting and certifying vessels on behalf of the government, in the southern port city of Busan and another office in Incheon.

"The prosecution will thoroughly investigate illegal acts practiced in the shipping business in light of the Sewol accident and take stern legal actions against those who violated the law," said Bae Sung-beom, a lead investigator.

The KR approved the Sewol for operation in February after doing a safety check on more than 200 items, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said they are looking for any evidence of possible wrongdoing in relation to the safety inspection of the Sewol and whether KR officials were bribed in exchange for lax inspection.

Two KR officials were summoned by prosecutors to face questioning over the overall safety conditions of local ferries currently in operation, prosecutors added.


<YNAPHOTO path='C:/YNA/YNACLI~1/Down/Article/AEN20140424005551315_01_i.jpg' id='' title='' caption='Prosecutors seize items from the head office of the Korean Register of Shipping (KR) in the southern port city of Busan on April 24, 2014, as part of their investigation into a deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol. (Yonhap) '/>

khj@yna.co.kr
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