South Korean police hunt for fugitive tycoon already found dead is ridiculed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 11:12pm


South Korea's police force was pilloried as incompetent yesterday after its announcement on Tuesday that a body found six weeks ago was that of a fugitive tycoon at the heart of a months-long manhunt.

Most major newspapers carried articles and editorials that ridiculed the police for expending massive financial and personnel resources in the search for a man already in one of their morgues.

Billionaire Yoo Byung-Eun, 73, became South Korea's most wanted man following the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster in which around 300 people died, most of them schoolchildren.

Yoo was the patriarch of the family that owned the ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Company, and was wanted for questioning over lax safety standards and regulatory violations.

On Tuesday, the police said DNA and fingerprint tests on a badly decomposed body found in a plum orchard on June 12 showed it to be that of Yoo.

Police said they initially believed the body - found near Yoo's final hiding place - was that of a homeless man, even though it was clothed in an expensive Italian jacket and a nearby bag contained Yoo's autobiography.

The fact that it took so long to identify the body was "pathetic at best", said the JoongAng Ilbo daily in an editorial. "Should we really spend our tax money on such police and prosecutors?" the editorial asked.

The top-selling Chosun Ilbo ran a front-page headline mocking the "dumbfounding" failure to pick up on clear clues to the body's identity. "The incompetence of police and prosecutors is simply astounding," it said.

The Dong-A Ilbo noted that police had failed to check dental records in what it called an "utterly preposterous" lapse.

The site where the body was found was just outside the city of Suncheon, 300km south of Seoul.

Addressing a press briefing on Tuesday, Suncheon police chief Woo Hyung-Ho acknowledged the "imperfect" nature of the investigation.

"We could have identified him far earlier if we had worked more actively," said Woo, who was sacked the same day.

The body was too decomposed to immediately ascertain the cause of death, although several empty alcohol bottles were found at the scene.

Since the police announcement, social network sites and internet news portals have been inundated with conspiracy theories, some questioning whether the body was Yoo's at all.

The JoongAng Ilbo said the police and prosecutors were "entirely responsible" for the speculation, given all the unanswered questions raised by the botched investigation.