Yoo Byung-eon, the part-time cult leader and de-facto owner of ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine, remains on the lam, making a mockery of prosecutors' attempts to arrest him.
Yoo’s presumed getaway car was found in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province last Thursday following a nationwide search, but investigators cannot say for certain whether he actually rode the car. It had been ditched four days earlier, demonstrating just how far behind him investigators have been.
The Incheon District Prosecutors' Office formed a taskforce on April 20, just four days after the ferry disaster off the southwest coast. It would not have been difficult to arrest Yoo if prosecutors had demonstrated firm resolve early on in the investigation. Yoo was then still cowering in a sprawling 260,000 sq.m compound south of Seoul as the investigation into his links to Chonghaejin Marine picked up steam.
But prosecutors wasted an entire month just waiting for Yoo to appear for questioning while they summoned an endless stream of underlings. They finally searched for him inside the compound on May 21, but by then he had bolted.
Yoo is no ordinary fugitive who has to rely on his wits. He is being assisted by fanatical members of his cult who revere him as a god. He has ample cash and access to mobile phones registered in fake names. In late April, when he was still holed up at the compound, his followers had already prepared a safe house for him near Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. They installed blackout blinds on the windows to make it appear as if the house was empty and supplied Yoo with tools to install new license plates on his getaway car.
Yet when prosecutors searched the safe house in Suncheon on May 25, they wasted valuable time arguing with a restaurant owner and his wife who live nearby and a Korean-American woman who is a follower of Yoo's sect. Yoo had apparently fled hours before prosecutors arrived there. Had investigators worked with local police, they might have succeeded in arresting him.
If prosecutors fail to capture Yoo, they may be unable to bring legal closure to this tragedy. Lawmakers plan to hold a National Assembly hearing on the ferry sinking, but it is sure to fail unless the prime suspect is captured.
Investigators, too, may tire of the search if it drags on much longer. A W500 million (US$1=W1,020) bounty has been put on Yoo's head, but eventually people will lose interest. The president herself has urged prosecutors to arrest Yoo quickly and has approved a huge amount of resources and personnel to capture the fugitive.
If prosecutors fail to nab him, they will lose face in front of the entire nation.