South Korean President Park Geun-hye today denounced fugitive members of the ship-owning family linked to last month’s ferry disaster, calling them the “root cause” of the tragedy that claimed around 300 lives.
The government has offered a US$50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Yoo Byung-eun, patriarch of the family behind Chonghaejin Marine Company.
Chonghaejin owned and operated the 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry that capsized and sank on April 16 with hundreds of high school students on board.
Yoo and his eldest son have become the targets of a massive manhunt after they ignored prosecutors’ summons to surrender themselves for questioning.
Initial investigations suggest that lax safety standards and negligent business practices may have been a major contributor to the disaster.
“The Yoo Byung-eun family, the root cause of the tragedy, is flouting the law and causing public fury at a time when it should repent in front of people and reveal the truth,” Park told a meeting of her cabinet.
“This is an absolutely unpardonable criminal act,” she said.
Yoo has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, but his children and close aides control it through a complex web of holding companies.
Prosecutors had offered an initial reward of US$50,000 for information on Yoo’s whereabouts, but upped the figure to US$500,000 yesterday after days of fruitless searching.
Five Chonghaejin officials have already been arrested and a lesser reward of 100 million won (HK$756,000) has been offered for Yoo’s eldest son, Yoo Dae-kyun.
In the wake of the Sewol tragedy, President Park has had to contend with widespread public criticism of the rescue effort and lax regulatory oversight.
In a tearful address to the nation last week, she accepted personal responsibility and announced she would dismantle the coastguard in an overhaul of the national emergency response system.
Park has been very outspoken in her own criticism of the ferry’s captain and surviving crew members, saying their decision to abandon ship while hundreds were still trapped was “tantamount to murder”.
“We hope the bigger cash reward will lead to his quick arrest,” senior prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong said yesterday.
Last week, investigators raided a compound belonging to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, of which Yoo is a leading member, but failed to find him.
Yoo has described himself as an artist and photographer and was once convicted of fraud when a company under his control went bankrupt.