Tag Archives: south korea

Yoo Byung-eun

Yoo Byung-eun: The Bizarre Billionaire Figure Tied to the Sewol Disaster


The story of the search for the mysterious billionaire patriarch blamed for the Sewol disaster is already bizarre enough. The largest manhunt in South Korean history had 10,000 police officers scouring religious cult compounds in an effort to capture the 73-year-old Yoo Byung-eun. Then, authorities announced recently that a body found in an apricot orchard in a rural villa last month turns out to be that of Yoo—only it’s so badly decomposed that forensic experts cannot determine how the nation’s most wanted man died. Before his demise, he had apparently managed to evade capture by hiding behind a secret wall.

Yet, as drama-ridden as all of that is, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the full story behind the reclusive Yoo himself and the incredible empire he built.

An extensive article by the New York Times earlier this week painted a picture of a charismatic leader and ruthless executive who consciously blended the lines of business and religion. He erected a sprawling network of companies around the world, in addition to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, which is widely considered by many Christian leaders as a cult. The church also became a major source of his wealth, investigators believe, as he, his sons and associates would persuade followers to donate or invest their savings in his business holdings, according to the article.

Yoo would use his companies and church to fund a lavish lifestyle that, without context, sounds like something a certain family out of North Korea might engage in. Some particularly fascinating highlights from the NYT story include:

•  Yoo’s business group consisted of over 70 companies on three continents that his family would use as a personal ATM.

•  Family members, either in their own name or through companies, own at least $8 million worth of real estate in the United States alone, including a condominium at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan. They also have the rights to be an American distributor of Debauce & Gallais, the French maker of luxury chocolates once favored by Marie Antoinette.

•  In France, the Yoo family owns an entire village.

•  One of the tenets of Yoo’s religious group was a focus on health, apparently stemming from Yoo’s frailty as a child. Preoccupied with cleanliness, he complained of fellow Christians’ long prayers before meals because they allowed “little white specks” of spit to land on their food.

•  In 1991, Yoo was convicted of defrauding his own church members, also known as “Salvationists,” following a mass suicide of 32 individuals who had owed loans to the church they couldn’t pay back. The church still boasts 100,000 members, but their interpretation of how Christians reach salvation remains a source of controversy. One Presbyterian pastor who is an expert on fringe Korean churches described Yoo as “deified as a Moses or a messiah among his followers, and they give him money as he pleases.”

•  After he emerged from prison, his family tried to reinvent Yoo as a mysterious, artistic renaissance man named Ahae. One of the family businesses then donated $1.5 million to the Louvre, which subsequently etched “Ahae” in gold on a marble wall at the museum. The Yoos and their associates forced their own businesses, including the ferry company [that owned the Sewol], to buy his photos at inflated prices, pitching them as good investments.

Of course, all the money Yoo and his family squeezed from the church and their businesses came at a cost. In one of their more damning findings, South Korean prosecutors say that so much money was being siphoned away from the ferry company to Yoo and his relatives that it was starved of funds to run the business properly. The company spent just $2 last year on safety training for the Sewol’s crew members, according to the New York Times article. Those few dollars went to buy a paper copy of a certificate.

The article noted that the surviving ferry crew members—also standing trial for charges ranging from negligence to homicide—have told authorities they did not know how to handle emergencies.

Image via Daily Mail



Student Survivors of Sewol Disaster Testify of Crew Negligence

As some 30 high school students lined up to get to an emergency exit while the ship they were on tilted violently, there were no crew members in sight to help direct or evacuate them.

“With no sign of a rescue team, we jumped into the water one by one. But then a wave swamped the exit and 10 other students couldn’t get out of the ship,” said the teenager, one of six Danwon High School students who testified Monday at the trial for the surviving crew members of the Sewol disaster, according to the Korea Herald.

The teenagers testified that they had to help each other, often holding hands and pushing and pulling each other along to try to escape the ferry, which would capsize and leave more than 300 dead or missing. Two-thirds of the Danwon High School sophomore class, who were on a school trip bound for Jeju Island, perished in one of the worst maritime disasters in the nation’s history.

The ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, and 15 crew members are facing charges ranging from homicide to negligence for leaving their 476 passengers to fend for themselves, according to prosecutors.

In addition to urging the judges to punish the crew members on trial, the students also testified that Coast Guard personnel did not heed their calls to rescue people still on the ferry.

“The Coast Guard officials were on the rubber boat within an arm’s length from the ferry, but they only dragged out people who jumped into the waters,” a female student said, as quoted by the Herald. “I told them that there were many friends waiting to be rescued near the exit, but they only stared at them.”

Another survivor said if the crew had only used the PA system to warn passengers to escape, versus ordering them to stay in their cabins, many more could have survived.

This marked the first time student survivors testified during the trial. The six were allowed to give their testimony in Ansan, where they live and attend school, after the court ruled it might be too traumatic for them to do so in Gwangju, where the trial is taking place—the city is not far the site of the disaster.

Photo of a student survivor of the Sewol disaster entering the Suwon District Court in Ansan, South Korea ( via AP). 



29 NKorean Defectors and Five Guides Arrested in China

Above photo: Demonstrators stage a rally at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul to protest China’s policy of arresting North Korean defectors in 2012. Source: Los Angeles Times


An activist group for North Korean defectors confirmed the arrest of 29 North Korean defectors and five guides in China, reports the Chosun Ilbo. It is said to be the largest arrest of North Korean defectors and guides recorded so far.

The individuals, who were divided into two groups, were arrested between July 15 and July 17, said the newspaper. Kwon Na-hyun, speaking on behalf of the activist group, said that 20 defectors were arrested in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and nine others in Kunming, Yunnan Province, as they made their way through an established escape route to Southeast Asia. Of the guides arrested, one of them, Na Su-hyun, 39, was a former North Korean defector who has a South Korean passport. The South Korean consulate general in China is expected to visit Na.

“Nine of them left for Kunming [from Qingdao] on July 14, because it would have been dangerous if all 29 defectors traveled together,” Kwon told the Chosun Ilbo. The defectors are being held in Tunmen, a town close to the North Korean border, and they face almost certain deportation.

Voice of America reports that the group of North Koreans consisted of four families, including a couple in their 60s and others in their 20s and 30s, as well as a 1-year-old baby.

The South Korean government apparently learned of the arrest on July 16 and is in the process of negotiating with the Chinese government for their release. A Seoul official told Voice of America that Beijing was very reluctant to release the North Koreans to South Korea. Meanwhile, China has not publicly commented on the issue.

Beijing’s policy for years has been to send North Korean defectors back, citing its border treaty with Pyongyang and illegal immigration problems as a whole. Instead of classifying them as refugees or asylum-seekers, the Chinese government classifies them as illegal economic migrants subject to deportation.


Seoul Transforms Urban Eyesores Into Creative, Artistic Spaces


An unused factory, a vacated government building, an abandoned commercial space—all are considered eyesores for a city. But, more and more, such sites in Seoul are being replaced by “creative spaces” that that may be ushering in an artistic renaissance for the city, while also fighting urban blight.

Sindang Creative Arcade, for example, today is home to artists who do work in pottery, textiles, photography and other crafts, and have access to 41 workstations. But before this transformation, the place was described as a “dungeon” located in the underground shopping center of the Joongang Traditional Market in Sindang-dong, which had teemed with small businesses a decade ago but had long been empty.

The Sindang Creative Arcade is one of nine “creative spaces” created by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, an arm of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Each creative space boasts a central theme that inspires the project. The Yeonhui Writer’s Village hosts writers’ rooms and a literary media lab, while the Seongbuk Art Creativity Center, built at an old community health center, focuses on healing-by-art programs.

Artist Ann Hyun-suk led the Folding Zip House project last year at the Seongbuk Center. It was a campaign with both artistic, as well as economic and humanistic value, as participants worked to transform old, donated clothes into sleeping bags for the homeless, according to the Korea Herald. The project promoted healing for everyone involved, from the citizens who donated their clothes for a good cause to the homeless who came “to realize that they are not neglected,” said the article.

Such projects represent an effort “rooted in a ‘culturenomics’ goal,” according to a statement from the Seoul foundation. The strategy is to recycle “underutilized urban facilities and resources,” while also supporting artists and benefiting Seoul citizens at large. The overarching goal: to transform Seoul into a “creative cultural city.”


Before and after photos of the underground section of the Joongang Traditional Market (via Korea Herald).

Artists can access these creative spaces by submitting an application and paying a minimal fee, while also committing to certain obligations, such as helping set up public programs, according to the Korea Herald article.

“Artists are foremost in need of a space where they can engage in artistic endeavors,” Ahn Kyung-hee, one of the artists in residence at the Sindang Creative Arcade, told the Korea Herald. And once these artists can realize their artistic aspirations in these spaces, they can foster a creative relationship with the public.



As part of the Folding Zip House Project, led by the Seongbuk Art Creativity Center, donated clothes were made into sleeping bags

for the homeless. The sleeping bags were displayed at the center’s gallery prior to their distribution. (Via Korea Herald)

Top photo via HansHostel.net


South Korea and U.S Sign Agreement Governing Return of Korean Artifacts


Authorities from the U.S. and South Korean governments today signed a landmark accord meant to facilitate the return of cultural assets that were seized during the Korean War.

South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, signed the memorandum of understanding at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., Yonhap reported.

“This is the first MOU between a U.S. agency and an agency from the Republic of Korea concerning the cooperation, protection, recovery, restitution of cultural property,” said Tom Winkowski, the principal deputy assistant secretary for ICE, before signing the agreement with CHA’s Rha Sun-hwa.

The agreement follows the discovery and eventual return of nine Korean seals that were removed from the country by an American soldier during the Korean War 60 years ago. Family members of the deceased American Marine lieutenant turned the seals over to U.S. authorities last November. ICE officials said the soldier had found the seals in a ditch near the Deoksugung Palace, which had been ransacked by Chinese and North Korean soldiers.

The new memorandum will help govern information sharing between the agencies and is “also intended to enhance the investigations of looted, stolen cultural property which would lead to the return of these objects to their rightful country or owner,” Winkowski said.

Rha from CHA also noted that the accord is meaningful in that it will expand relations beyond military and economic cooperation into the cultural realm.

“I am hopeful that today’s signing will serve as an exemplary case to other countries holding Korean cultural properties and an opportunity to recognize the value of many Korean cultural objects from the place where they are originated from,” Rha said, according to Yonhap.

Among the artifacts were three national seals of the Korean Empire, the Hwangjejibo (Seal of Emperor), a royal seal and the rest signets used to stamp books or paintings by the Joseon Dynasty’s Royal Court, according to ICE. Rha said that the emperor’s seal is considered “priceless to South Korea as it represents the national dignity and pride of South Korea and its citizens.”

The items were returned to their homeland when President Barack Obama visited South Korea for a summit with President Park Geun-hye this past spring.

Photo courtesy of ICE


Man With Knife Breaches JYP Headquarters, Demands Meeting with CEO


Authorities arrested a 34-year-old man for trespassing into the JYP Entertainment main headquarters in Seoul yesterday and threatening its employees with a knife, according to South Korean media.

The man, identified by the police only by his surname Choi, gained entrance into the complex by closely following an employee entering the building and managed to make it  to a recording room on the third floor, despite employees’ attempts to block him, reported the Korea Herald. Once there, he demanded to meet with JYP CEO J.Y. Park while wielding a 30-centimeter kitchen knife, police said.

The Herald reported that, after a secretary told him he could not meet with Park, Choi threw the knife. It was unclear from the news reports if he was trying to throw the knife at someone. No one was injured in the incident.

Police believe that Choi was enraged about the company’s lack of response to a job application he had sent it two years ago. “I sent in an application to enter JYP Entertainment two years ago, yet I didn’t receive any response or meet with Park . Therefore, I decided to come myself,” Choi told police.

JYP Entertainment, founded and led by J.Y. Park, is considered one of the “big three” record companies in South Korea. Its roster of artists have included the Wonder Girls, Rain and 2PM.

Photo via hanintel


North/South Talks Over Asian Games In Incheon Collapse


Though sports is often seen as a way to offer nations in conflict a way of reaching across the aisle, a recent breakdown in talks between North and South Korea over the upcoming Asian Games dealt a bit of a setback to the goals of sports diplomacy.

The North Korea delegation participating in talks with the South over the 2014 Asian Games to be hosted in Incheon, South Korea, reportedly walked out of the most recent session, accusing its Korean counterpart of being insincere, according to a report in the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“North Korea was not happy with the way the talks were conducted,” an official from the Unification Ministry was quoted as saying by the South Korean newspaper.

The first round of talks, proposed by North Korea, focused on logistical issues, such as transportation methods and determining the size of the athletic and cheerleading team Pyongyang wound send to the event.

Yesterday, Kwon Kyung-sang, secretary general of the Incheon Asian Games Organizing Committee, and Son Kwang-ho, vice chairman of North Korea’s Olympic Committee, met in Panmunjom, a village located in a demilitarized zone, as part of their respective three-member delegations. Not only did the two sides fail to hash out an agreement, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA indicated the country is considering boycotting the event. North Korea had planned to send 700 athletes and cheerleaders to Incheon.

One of the main points of controversy was choosing an agreeable transportation method for the athletes and cheerleaders. Traveling by boat may be ruled out, since South Korea has prohibited North Korean vessels from entering its waters after the North allegedly sunk the South’s Cheonan warship in May of 2010. The North’s officials have long maintained they were not responsible, though an investigation by the South implicated them.

Another possible issue may have been South Korea’s unwillingness to pay for the North’s travel expenses as it did during the Sunshine Policy administrations of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, according to the Ministry of Unification. The ministry suggested that the South this year would only a pay a portion, an amount that abides by international regulations for less-developed countries.

Additionally, the size of North Korea’s flags has also reportedly been an issue, as the South Korean delegates declared them to be too large. According to AP, an anonymous South Korean official said the objections were out of concern for the safety of the North Korean cheerleaders.

A follow-up meeting has not been set by either side to further discuss logistics of the Asian Games, which begins on Sept. 19.

Photo via AFP

¼Ò¹æÇï±â ±¤ÁÖ µµ½É¼­ Ã߶ô

Helicopter Searching for Sewol Victims Crashes, Killing 5 Firefighters


Just one week away from the 100-day anniversary of the Sewol sinking in South Korea, another ripple of the tragedy occurred.

On Thursday, a helicopter carrying five firefighters searching for the 11 remaining bodies of the South Korean ferry victims crashed near an apartment building and school in the southern city of Gwangju, reports the Associated Press.

The helicopter was returning to its headquarters from its search mission when the crash occurred, fire officials told the Associated Press. A female teenager on the ground was also hit by flying debris and suffered minor injuries.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known and is being investigated.

Seven people, including the five firefighters, have been killed in the search operations for the ferry victims. Two divers died while participating in the dangerous underwater search of the vessel.

South Korea news station YTN showed a video of the crash captured by a nearby driver’s black box camera in his car:

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that today marked the 100-day anniversary of the Sewol sinking, but it is July 24, one week from today. KoreAm regrets this error.