Prosecutors and Foreign Ministry officials refuse to say which countries ferry owner Yoo Byung-eon has sounded out for political asylum in a last-ditch bid to escape the law.
An official at the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office on Tuesday said "an unnamed person" contacted "foreign embassies" on Yoo's behalf to see if a claim of political or religious persecution would stick, but they rejected the request since he has been charged with criminal offenses.
Yoo is a part-time cult leader and has been in trouble with the law for years, on one occasion over a mass suicide by acolytes.
News reports on Wednesday mentioned France and Canada, whose embassies were inundated with phone calls from reporters until late at night.
But they denied any knowledge.
A Foreign Ministry official said, "Around the world, matters involving asylum are treated as top secret. It is common diplomatic practice not to confirm anything when it comes to that issue." The official added Korea's international image could be damaged if Seoul makes any official comments.
But critics wonder why, if political asylum is such a sensitive matter, prosecutors revealed that Yoo had sought asylum in the first place.
One prosecution official said, "Revealing the asylum bid but refusing to say which countries are involved wasn’t a smart move." Others say prosecutors may have acted unwisely in their attempt to portray Yoo as an unrepentant criminal.
The Foreign Ministry sent requests on Tuesday to 132 foreign diplomatic missions asking them to reject asylum bids from Yoo and his sons.