Close aides to fugitive ferry owner Yoo Byung-eon went on trial on Monday on charges of corruption believed to have contributed to the April 16 ferry disaster. But Yoo, who headed the vast corporate empire, including ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine, and his children, who controlled significant stakes, were nowhere to be seen.
Among the eight defendants was Song Kook-bin (62), head of direct-sales affiliate Dapanda, who stands accused of helping Yoo and his children embezzle money from Chonghaejin Marine and other affiliates, seriously undermining safety at the ferry operator.
The prosecution in its opening statement said the sinking of the ferry Sewol was a disaster waiting to happen due to corruption within the company. Prosecutors also criticized the followers of a cult led by Yoo for blinding themselves to the reality and obstructing the investigation.
Prosecutors say the aides embezzled company funds disguised as consulting fees, payments for Yoo's photographic works and investments.
Prosecutors believe Yoo, an undischarged bankrupt, and his children siphoned funds from Chonghaejin Marine and other affiliates over a considerable period of time under a highly secretive management structure. Prosecutors also accused Yoo of amassing his fortune illegally by using religion to lure donors and misappropriating their money while he and his children lived lives of luxury.
"Religion and business worked hand in hand so that donations made to the church were used to buy companies, while management, shareholders and staff were followers of the sect," the prosecution said. "Yoo was in charge of all decisions and that ensured that he faced no resistance."
Song and the other defendants admitted the charges but blamed another executive overseas who is still on the run. But they accused neither Yoo nor any of his children.