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     May 22, '14

The many masks of Yoo Byung-eun
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Who is Yoo Byung-eun? More to the point, where is Yoo Byung-eun? South Korea's most wanted man, known locally as the billionaire without a face, is nothing if not elusive. On May 20, South Korean prosecutors set up a 40-strong team to track him down after he had ignored a second summons to present himself at their offices in Incheon, the port city west of Seoul.

The same day, soon-to-be-ex prime minister Chung Hong-won told the National Assembly that "the government should try and confiscate all his fortune" - and for good measure his family's as well. Yoo's two sons and a daughter have ignored summonses, just like daddy.

Strong words, considering that Yoo has yet to be formally charged

with any offense - much less found guilty. But that's South Korean justice for you. The concept of innocent till proven guilty, or even sub judice - that's Latin for STFU, mass media, lest you prejudice any chance of a fair trial - is widely ignored. Day after day in real time, prosecutors shamelessly leak tasty morsels of what is so far only suspicion, to a press which then prints them as if they were fact.

Which indeed they may well turn out to be, once the mills of justice have done their work. It's not that I'm defending the guy or anything. But this is surely no way to run a judicial system.

Yonhap, the semi-official news agency, said on May 20 that Yoo faces "a host of corruption charges, including embezzlement, dereliction of duty, tax evasion and bribery, according to the prosecutors". One more reminder: he hasn't actually been indicted for any of this, yet.

But the net is closing in. So, who is Yoo Byung-eun? A man of many disguises and carefully honed identities, some currently being shed in hopes to thwart those trying to track him down.

First and foremost this means the South Korean government, which has swung into action big-time. A phalanx of authorities - police, prosecutors, tax authorities, financial regulators, customs, you name it - are hard on the trail of the man they believe to be ultimately behind Chonghaejin Marine. That's the company which owned and operated the 6,825 ton Sewol, Korea's largest ferry until it suddenly listed and sank on April 16. As you doubtless know all too well by now, more than 300 people drowned. Most were teenagers from a single year-group in a single school near Seoul, who were heading for an Easter break on the holiday island of Jeju.

More than a month later, this awful tragedy continues to grip the country. On May 19, a tearful President Park Geun-hye apologized, not for the first time. Many questions arise, but these are not directly our subject here. Mine is a simpler quest, or should be. Who is Yoo Byung-eun?

Covering his tracks
I too have been trying to track him down, online. This was easier a month ago than now. Even then, Yoo dissembled. Lately, someone has been trying very hard to hide or erase his tracks.

But they reckoned without Archive.org. In case you don't know it, this amazing site trawls the Web continuously, caching everything it can. You can't guarantee to find every web page that has ever existed, but there's a good chance. This has been a vital resource for Sherlock AFC.

So, who is Yoo? Oh but please, call him Ahae: he'd prefer that. (It means child in old Korean, which may be significant.) The most successful and least controversial of Yoo's many guises, Ahae is a nature photographer. He's best known for taking 2.7 million pictures, no less, from a single window: recording the changing seasons, passing birds and animals, and much more.

These are lovely images, no question. At Ahae.com on Archive.org for April 30 [1], you can see how this site used to open. It's one of the most beautiful things that I've ever watched on the Web. A similar half-hour slideshow, with new age music, is still there to enjoy at Ahae.com.

But better to watch it on YouTube. [2] For Ahae.com now opens as Ahaenews.com, and to reach the photos requires scrolling down past some tendentious talking heads. Curators et al from London, Paris - Ahae has exhibited at Versailles - Florence, Prague and Moscow have been wheeled out to sing his praises. Mike von Joel, described as Editor in Chief of State Media in London (new to me), deplores the "insidious calumnies currently being directed at the Korean photographer and artist we know in the UK as AHAE" (do we? Capitals in the original).

Professor Milan Knizak, former Director of the National Gallery in Prague, goes further. He declares that "Korea Should Be Proud of People like AHAE" (fat chance). All this is subtitled and printed in Korean, leaving no doubt of the intended target audience of this quixotic quest.

But who is Ahae? Even before the Sewol storm broke, he seemed self-effacing - literally. The only images of him on Ahae.com were shot from behind: cap on head, camera pressed to eye. I can find no pictures of him at all on the new, exculpatory Ahaenews.com. Nor is he named there in full, though we learn he is Yoo - and that one of his sons is known in Paris as Keith.

Many talents, he says
If this suggests modesty, think again. Before the Sewol sank, Ahae.com featured a long (2,000 word) "Introduction To Ahae And His Photography". This puffed a genius, again unnamed, of infinite talents: "inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmental activist, martial artist, painter, sculptor, poet, and photographer." (Spot the missing one? We'll come back to that.)

A clue: he clearly thinks he is God's gift. A Korean born in Japan in 1941, thus aged 73, he is a seventh degree black belt in Taekwondo, and has "registered and owned over one thousand patents and trademarks" in his business career. This includes health products and "the largest organic lavender farm in Southern California". As well as, ahem, "various boats and small ocean-going ships that now plough the waters of the Han River in Seoul and further afield".

For some reason he doesn't want you to see this now, but in vain: it's still up at Archive.org. [3] What he does want you to read is a press release issued on April 25. [4] Yoo waited nine days to express "profound sadness" at the ferry disaster, but once again his main focus is himself. He insists he had nothing to do with Chonghaejin, while admitting his sons are its shareholders.

A wiser man would have left it there - and said sorry sooner. Not Yoo. His press release then degenerates into a narcissistic, evasive whinge about an "undeserved attack against AHAE, his character and his credentials as an artist." Knizak's "Korea should be proud of people like AHAE" is trotted out again. The fact that Yoo had already been slapped with a travel ban is airily dismissed: "This blanket approach is standard for investigations by Korean regulators."

It gets worse. All this has "brought back painful memories from 1991 to Mr Yoo when he was the undeserved focus of a frenzied media circus, and then subsequently fully exonerated". He was found to have "no link" to "a major mass suicide scandal related to a religious cult".

"Fully exonerated" is an odd description of being jailed for four years, as Yoo was in 1992. And "no link"? That's iffy, too. More on this murky blast from the past in just a moment.

Denying God.com
For now, recall that as Ahae Yoo professed no fewer than nine identities: from inventor via entrepreneur to photographer. Yet he omitted a 10th and crucial string to his bow: Preacher. For this side of Yoo we must look elsewhere, though here too he'd suddenly rather you didn't. And where else to seek religion if not @ God.com? Amazing webname, no? Modest or what?

But actually, as of mid-May, a terrible let-down. Go there now, and all you find is a brief (100 words) home page with six bald questions: "Does God exist? Is the Bible really true? Why are there so many religions and which one is right?" etc etc. But no answers. No salvation here.

Didn't Jesus warn against hiding your light under a bushel? And all in vain, for once again the invaluable Archive.org reveals what Yoo now wants to conceal. As recently as April 30 the questions posed on God.com came with answers. [5] Four short devotional books could be read there, with titles such as The Anchor of the Soul and God So Loved (in three parts). [6]

When I first found God.com in April, it also had an "About the Author" page. This credited one B E Yoo, who "for more than forty years has worked as an inventor and businessman to support the spreading of the gospel all over the world ... He continues to work for the sake of the gospel ... with the same firm belief that this is a message that everyone needs to hear." [7]

Well, maybe not everyone. Or indeed anyone. First, the author page disappeared sometime in early May. By May 17, all trace of the books themselves, titles and text, had vanished too. A strange faith this, where saving souls suddenly seems less urgent than saving someone's skin.

But here again evasiveness is pointless. Yoo can hardly delete his life history. It's well-known that in 1962 he co-founded the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC). Prosecutors were quick to raid EBC's HQ. For a time, Yoo was thought to be hiding in a church facility in Anseong, south of Seoul, protected by hundreds of EBC faithful. Their loyalty, however misplaced, when all of South Korea is baying for his blood, puts to shame Ahae's strange failure to mention this - surely his core identity if he's sincere. Shades of the disciple Peter's notorious denial of Jesus. Authorities on Wednesday, backed by 25 buses filled with riot police, gained access to the facility following a nine-day stand-off after prosecutors won court permission to enter the complex by force if necessary, but they found no sign of Yoo.

So where does the EBC fit in? And what was that nasty business back in the 1990s? The death toll was lower than the Sewol, but the circumstances far more sinister. A vivid blogpost from 2010 at the excellent Ask-a-Korean unravels a tangled and lurid history, suddenly relevant. [8]

A cult murder-suicide
The nasty part was a 1987 mass murder-suicide. Thirty-two bodies were found at a facility belonging to Odaeyang, a firm that fronted for a religious cult. Fingers were pointed at Yoo at the time. But as he insists, prosecutors could find nothing linking him to that shocking crime as such.

Yet he certainly figures in the wider picture. Odaeyang was a breakaway from the EBC, and reportedly the money trail (US$17 million at today's prices) led to Semo Ferries, owned by Yoo. In 1992, Yoo was jailed for fraud, guilty of siphoning off church funds into his business. Echoing this, prosecutors are now suggesting that EBC money flowed into Chonghaejin too.

And Semo? From 1986, its pleasure boats plied the Han river in Seoul, thanks to Yoo's ties with then dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Semo went bust in 1997. Unfazed, Yoo founded Chonghaejin in 1999 using Semo's assets. His empire overall is said to be worth at least 240 billion won (US$231 million); but one estimate doubles that, and local media call him a billionaire.

Church and business still seem to overlap. EBC's 20,000 followers reportedly include most top officials in Chonghaejin's 26-odd affiliates - this mini-chaebol (conglomerate) ranges from ferries and shipbuilding to paint and door-to-door selling - and most of the Sewol crew, who nearly all saved themselves while abandoning their young passengers. As a Korea Times headline starkly put it: "Infidel Sewol captain and sailors [are] devout Guwon faithfuls".

Gu-what? It means salvation. In the hothouse world of Korean sects, messiahs are many. But the Korea Times' lurid language - infidel, heathen, pagan - misleads. More precisely, South Korea's mainstream Protestants have condemned EBC and its ilk as heretical. The theology is abstruse, but if that grabs you then try this lengthy counterblast [9] - from Nagaland in eastern India, of all places. Korea is Asia's most Protestant nation; its missionaries get everywhere.

What next? The authorities are determined to nab Yoo. Sooner or later they will, perhaps even by the time you read this. Some suggest Yoo in fact slipped away from the Anseong facility and is now hiding out with supporters in Seoul. One son and daughter are overseas. All this could run and run.

Based on his behavior so far, the least likely outcome is that Yoo will do the decent thing and turn himself in. In the 1980s, he used to tell his flock to obey the law, even though that meant Chun's dictatorship. Today's democratically legitimate laws surely deserve no less respect.

We know how he hates a "frenzied media circus". In a rare interview in 1999 after his release from jail, he said he felt "really insulted" that people linked him to Odaeyang, adding: "I feel like I'm a woman living in a small village and one day you suddenly got sexually assaulted." (Hat-tip to Reuters, who early on did more research on Yoo than most media then or since.) [10]

Selfish salvation
This time may well be worse. Might Yoo seek martyrdom? He doesn't sound the type. Maybe theology is relevant here. The reasons EBC and its ilk (who are legion in Korea) are seen as heretical by the Protestant mainstream include their rejection of religious authority in favor of unmediated individual salvation. That carries risks. One is if believers are told all their sins are now forgiven and interpret this to mean that whatever they do is right. Or worse, if the leader of such a group gets the same idea into his head. You can see where that could lead.

Like I said, I don't prejudge. But if Yoo is a man of faith, let him come out now and face the music. And should he ever write a full and honest autobiography, I sure as hell want to read it.

Meanwhile, we have his beautiful tranquil nature shots. As different as could be from other images, unbearable even to imagine. Images of hundreds of children, their lives cruelly stolen, breaking their fingers desperately clawing at portholes as the chilly waters of the West Sea entombed them. Images of their young bodies, bloated and rotting now; a few still to be found and handed back to families who will grieve for as long as they live, and maybe then some.

The link is even closer than you think. One theory on why the Sewol sank, and so fast, is that it was overloaded: both with freight, and by having an possibly top-heavy extra story added in a refit in 2012 when Chonghaejin bought it from Japan (when it was already 18 years old and should have been scrapped). The extra floor was used to pack in more cabins - and also for a gallery displaying Ahae's pictures. I don't think I can bear to look at those any more.

1. See here 
2. See here 
3. See here 
4. See here 
5. See here 
6. See here 
7. See here 
8. See here 
9. See here 
10. See here 

Aidan Foster-Carteris honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas. He has followed developments in South Korea continuously ever since his first of some 28 visits, which was in 1982.

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