[The Chrtian Science Monitor] Why South Koreans are skeptical over mysterious death of fugitive ferry owner

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John 

South Korean police ended an unprecedented manhunt Tuesday without a live suspect, but with what they said was the body of the wealthy businessman wanted for months over the Sewol ferry disaster.

The answer to the mystery of Yoo Byung-eun’s whereabouts might have been expected to bring a measure of closure to a nation gripped by anger, disillusionment, and grief. Mr. Yoo is the alleged owner of the ferry that sank on April 16 with the loss of nearly 300 people, mostly high school students. Instead, the body’s identification has unleashed skepticism and full-blown conspiracy theories from a public whose faith in public institutions was badly shaken by the disaster.

Police told local media Tuesday that the heavily decomposed body of Yoo, who had eluded arrest since May, had been identified through DNA and fingerprint testing after it was first discovered in a plum field on June 12 in Suncheon, some 250 miles south of Seoul. Local reports suggested that the body had been initially mistaken for a homeless person. They also said police did not suspect foul play in Yoo’s death.

Some South Koreans saw the news of the body’s discovery as an attempt to direct attention away from a recent government bill to allow hospitals engage in greater profit-making activities, a controversial move in a country with a system of universal health insurance.

“They didn’t identify the body in a timely manner despite finding it weeks ago. Then, they suddenly presented the finding at this important time,” says Song Yu-jin, an office worker in Seoul.

Political consequences 

The drawn-out manhunt had been a growing source of embarrassment for President Park Geun-hye, whose reputation took a hit after an accident that, together with the rescue efforts, were seen as a national shame. Her Gallup poll approval rating hit a record low of 40 percent in early July, after two failed attempts to replace her prime minister.

“I think the government as a whole, the public sector as a whole, is losing the trust of people, especially since the Sewol accident this spring,” says Jung Yong-duck, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Conspiracy theories about major events are not uncommon in South Korea. The sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in 2010 sparked speculation of a government cover-up despite an international investigation concluding that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the vessel.

Yoo allegedly controlled Cheonghaejin Marine Corp., the company which owned the ferry, and was the co-founder of the evangelical Salvation Sect. The authorities’ handling of his body has provided further ammunition for skeptics. While police told local media they had handed over the body to the National Forensic Service shortly after it was discovered, citizens and media questioned the delay in confirming its identity and whether the police and prosecution had properly shared information.

“In this case, we have seen a failure of cooperation among government institutions, between the police department and the prosecutors’ office. They have been competing with each other to get investigative rights, especially the police department wants to have some sort of investigation right,” says Yang Seung-ham, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, referencing a long drawn-out dispute between police and prosecutors.

While most Koreans will believe the official narrative of Yoo’s death, Mr. Yang says, the government still suffers from a trust deficit over its handling of the Sewol disaster.

“They have to say the truth about this case,” he says. “Some people must have to take their responsibility and then the government, the presidential office, must show some sort of communication with the public about the malfunctioning government system.”

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The cults of South Korea

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat.

For more than six weeks, an obscure Christian sect widely described as a cult has dominated the news in South Korea. The reason: its alleged connection to a ferry sinking in April that killed more than 300 people.

Yoo Byung-eun, the founder of the Salvation Sect and alleged de facto owner of the ferry’s operating firm, has become the country’s most wanted man, with the authorities offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. He and his family stand accused of corruption, poor management and illegal modifications to the ferry Sewol that prosecutors say contributed to its sinking with hundreds of high school students onboard. Despite a massive manhunt across the country, Yoo has continued to elude capture since a court issued a warrant for his arrest on May 22.

“They (the Salvation Sect) began around the early 1970s. Their doctrine is influenced by the foreign missionaries,” Tark Ji-il, a professor at Busan Presbyterian University and expert on cults in Korea, told The Diplomat. “According to them, they don’t need to repent again and again. We need only one repentance. Right after realization of sin, there is no need to repent again. Because, according to them, righteous man is righteous man, even if they have committed a sin.”

While Yoo is regarded simply as a church leader by some members, more devoted followers see him as a messianic figure, according to Tark.

But while the Salvation Sect is currently the focus of national scrutiny, it is just one of many shadowy religious groups operating in South Korea, a country with one of Asia’s largest communities of Christians, divided among an incalculable number of churches. While it is difficult to determine an exact figure, perhaps hundreds of cults exist in Korea, according to Tark. Even without concrete figures, he believes that South Korea is unique among Asian and developing countries for the prevalence of such groups. In his book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, journalist Michael Breen reported that one church minister in the early 1960s identified some 70 Koreans who claimed to be the messiah and had followers.

The definition of a cult is not uncontroversial, in Korea and elsewhere, with followers typically rejecting the pejorative term. Timothy Lee, an expert in Evangelicalism in Korea at Brite Divinity School in Texas, said that contemporary historians typically avoid “value judgments on religious phenomena.” He did, however, offer several possible criteria for making the determination.

“I would say when seeking to determine whether a religious group is a cult or a legitimate church, one has to, among others, consider these three criteria: the freedom with which one can affiliate and disaffiliate with the group, the transparency in its leadership structure, and the group’s attitude toward larger society, with a cult assuming a much more exclusivist and condemnatory attitude toward society.”

Certainly Korean fringe churches to have attracted the label have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion, and other behavior associated with cults worldwide. The most sinister have been linked to criminality as serious as systematic rape and even murder.

In 1987, 33 members of the cult Odaeyang, of which the current fugitive Yoo was once a member, were found dead in a factory in Yongin, about 50 km south of Seoul. It has never been conclusively determined whether the cult members, whose bodies were found bound and gagged, had been murdered or committed mass suicide. Followers of the group’s leader Park Soon-ja, who was also among the dead, had believed that the world, irretrievably mired in decadence, was coming to an end.

Busan Presbyterian University professor Tark’s own father was murdered by a member of another cult in 1994.

In 2009, the leader of a South Korean cult known as Providence or Jesus Morning Star, among other names, was convicted of the rape or sexual assault of four of his female followers.

In April of this year, a television documentary for Australian broadcaster SBS detailed how the church was continuing to groom women in the country as future “brides” for its head Jeong Myeong-Seok, who is reported to have told his followers that their sins could be cleansed by having sex with him. Two Australian former members of the cult claimed they had been encouraged to write sexually explicit letters to Jeong and were even taken to Seoul to visit him in prison.

Providence/JMS is also one of several groups based in Korea to have a notable presence abroad. Perhaps no controversial Korean church has had more impact outside of Korea than the Unification Church, commonly referred to as the “Moonies,” which saw modest recruitment in the U.S. during the 1970s. It has faced accusations of brainwashing its members, a claim denied by the church as well as some independent religious scholars.

What most of Korea’s controversial religious groups have in common is that they can be traced back to one of three periods in the country’s modern history, according to Tark: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the period of military dictatorships that reached the peak of its authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the case of the former two periods, Tark said, instability and hardship helped popularize religious organizations that offered solace and valorized suffering.

“Right after 1931, it looked very hard to be saved from the Japanese occupation so they focused on Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross. So it is a kind of mysticism,” he said.

During the dictatorship period, meanwhile, many cult leaders could gain a foothold by supporting the government, unlike a lot of the anti-dictatorship mainline Protestant churches, according to Tark.

Various opinions exist as to the appeal of Korea’s fringe religious groups.

Peter Daley, a longtime resident who has researched cults in Korea since 2003 when his roommate became a member of Providence/JSM, said that one reason may be the relative lack of ambiguity in their teachings.

“With these groups, there’re no shades of grey, everything is absolutely, ‘yes, this guy is the messiah, yes, if you follow him you’ll go to heaven,’” said Daley, who claimed that his website jmscult.com and work with media has seen him threatened by disgruntled followers. “Some people feel that the … more mainstream groups sometimes don’t make these grandiose claims. So when a group comes along with all the answers to ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘c,’ that can be appealing to some people.”

Peer pressure and the deference toward one’s elders present in Korea society also work to the advantage of cult leaders, he said.

“Then you get these older Korean guys dressed up in suits; it can be hard for a younger Korean person to question that, especially when a new member is thrust into an environment where there are a lot of current members.”

Many groups are also highly Korea-centric, basing their beliefs around the idea that the country and Koreans themselves are somehow favored by God or otherwise special.

“Because they believe the new messiah is a Korean, the new revelation is written in Korean, the new nation (of people) who are going to be saved – 144,000 people – are Koreans, or the kingdom of God will be established in Korea (they can have many loyal Korea followers),” said Tark.

A cultural aspect of another sort may also be at play, according to Lee, the Brite Divinity School professor.

“I am not sure whether the number of cult-like organizations in Korea is, proportionally speaking, larger than in, say, Japan or the United States. But compared to Westerners, Koreans tend to be less individualistic and more communal, disposing them to affiliate with some organizations, which will typically assume some familial shape,” he said.

“And if leaders of such organizations develop a sense of religious calling that is looked askance by the larger society, gather followers around them, and insist on their practicing exclusivism, you have the beginnings of cults.”

South Korea Grapples With Implications of Ferry Tragedy

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat.

In the aftermath of one of its worst-ever maritime disasters, South Korea has found itself grappling with the question of how a modern ferry came to capsize in calm waters with the loss of 302 passengers, most of them high school students.

Alongside the expected grief and anger, the sinking of the Sewol on April 16 has also fuelled introspection about arguably the crowning achievement of the country’s modern history: its rapid rise from poverty to prosperity.

From the 1960s up until the 1980s, successive dictatorial governments implemented massive infrastructure projects and ambitious manufacturing targets at lightning speed. There followed an almost uninterrupted period of unprecedented economic growth. The “ppalli ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mentality exemplified by former dictator Park Chung-hee is considered to have been an indispensable ingredient in the “Miracle on the Han.”

But in the wake of the tragedy, newspaper editorials and commentators have asked if one cost of such a dramatic economic rise has been a society with a pervasive disregard for public safety.

In the Yeongnam Ilbo, a regional newspaper based in the country’s fourth-largest city Daegu, one column described the Sewol disaster as “the worst sort of outrageous drama” created by a culture of “daechung daechung,” translated loosely as “cutting corners.”

Yoon Cheol-hee, the paper’s social affairs editor, wrote that the shame and regret felt over the tragedy must never be forgotten so that South Korea can “break free from being an underdeveloped country in terms of safety.”

An editorial for the Jeju Ilbo, headquartered on the island the ill-fated ferry had been traveling to, asked if the “ppalli ppalli” mentality was to blame for the disaster, warning that economic development alone cannot create an “advanced country.”

“The value we had was the value of efficiency: given the time, and given the cost, and how fast and how cost-efficiently you achieve the goal. So that… was compelling energy we had, which was used to promote economic growth,” Moon M. Jae, a professor at the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I think the downside to that mode is actually the effectiveness in safety and those values that were a little bit lacking.”

In a strongly nationalistic country where tragedy and celebration alike are often seen to reflect the entire nation, the latest disaster has repeatedly been discussed in the same breath as previous calamities, many of them non-maritime, such as the collapse of a shopping mall in 1995 and a subway arson attack in 2003, both of which killed hundreds. As appears to be the case with the Sewol, incompetence and malpractice were features of both disasters.

Kim Chan-o, a professor at the Department of Safety Engineering at Seoul National University of Science and Technology, is one of many who believe the country’s rapid development has had negative consequences for safety right across society.

“As well as in the areas of construction and transportation, in all the other social areas, the negative effect exists now,” said Kim.

“Although the safety standards have many problems, I think the biggest problem is the safety awareness of the people, and that officials do not keep safety standards.”

South Korea lags other developed countries in a number of areas of public safety, according to statistics. The country had the highest death rate for pedestrians in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012, and the highest number of road fatalities per 1 billion vehiclekilometers in the previous year.

In its 2014 report on crime and safety in South Korea, the Overseas Security Advisory Council under the U.S. Department of State advised that, “vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks,” and that “it is common for drivers to watch live TV through their GPS devices via DMB (digital multimedia broadcasting) technology, a contributing factor in many accidents.”

Periodic work-related deaths at big name conglomerates such as Samsung, meanwhile, have been a recurrent source of controversy. In 2012, the country registered 1,134 fatal injuries in the workplace, not including 730 fatal illnesses. Differences in classification make comparisons across countries difficult, but the U.S., which has a population some six times greater than South Korea, had just 4,383 fatal workplace injuries in the same year.

And in the most recent blow to confidence in the country’s transport network, the government just last week announced that it would sanction Asiana Airlines over an incident in which its pilots continued a flight to Saipan despite engine trouble.

In the case of the Sewol, the list of alleged safety failures is long: the captain and crew failed to properly evacuate the ship; most of the life boats were not operational; and the vessel had been illegally modified and dangerously overloaded.

All 15 members of the crew involved in navigating the vessel, including the captain, have been arrested on various charges related to neglecting their duties. The operator of the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and its sister firms have come under investigation for alleged financial irregularities. Meanwhile, the Korean Register of Shipping and Korea Shipping Association, two of the main regulatory bodies for maritime safety, are accused of accepting bribes to overlook safety lapses.

“Although many people know what to do for maritime safety, they have not conducted it by themselves because of financial burden and bad habits,” said Hong Seung-kweon, an expert in maritime safety at Korea National University of Transportation in Chungju, about 150 km from Seoul.

The authorities’ response to the disaster has also generated shame and anger, aggravated further by the release Monday of footage of the initial rescue effort by the Coast Guard. In the video, a Coast Guard vessel is shown keeping its distance from the ship, which took nearly two hours to sink completely beneath the sea apart from a small section of the keel. Once onboard, rescue personal failed to enter the vessel to locate survivors.  Responding to the criticism, Coast Guards officials claimed that the severe listing of the ship and safety concerns for its personnel made it impossible to rescue a greater number of passengers despite their best efforts. Just 174 of the more 450 people onboard escaped the ship alive.

Moon, the Yonsei University professor, said the rescue operation, as well as the accident itself, illustrated a general problem with adhering to what on paper are often decent standards.

“Timely action wasn’t taken, and it is not because we didn’t have a disaster management or crisis management system – that system was there – but it didn’t play (out) a way we wanted to see,” he said.

Not all observers, however, agree that problems in maritime safety can be traced to the country’s fast accession to the club of rich nations or any related mentality.

“I can’t agree with their opinion. I think that the rapid economic development could not have led to weak safety standards,” said Hong. “I think that they are making excuses.”

A bigger threat to safety at sea, he said, has been old-fashioned greed.

“A noticeable threat to maritime safety is not to follow the safety rules for economic benefit.”