The South Korean Ferry Story Has Gotten Very, Very Weird

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 24 2014 10:49 AM

The South Korean Ferry Story Has Gotten Very, Very Weird

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A May rally mourning Sewol victims in Seoul.

Photo by Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The case of the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster has faded from headlines of late, but not for a lack of strange, unsettling developments. To summarize, here's what we knew about the case before this week:

  • The Sewol sank in April, killing a presumed 304 people, though not every presumed victim's body has been recovered.
  • Investigators came to believe that the operators of the ferry contributed to the disaster by overloading the ship and failing to properly train its crew.
  • The question of who actually owned the ferry was itself a complicated one, and prosecutors eventually targeted Yoo Byung-eun, a 73-year-old billionaire and a founder of the controversial Evangelical Baptist Church.
  • In the 1980s, 32 members of an offshoot of the Evangelical Baptist Church committed mass suicide, and the investigation ultimately led to Yoo's conviction for fraud. He spent four years in prison.
  • Rather than turn himself in over the Sewol case, Yoo became a fugitive. When the police raided an Evangelical Baptist Church compound to look for information on his whereabouts, literally thousands of officers were involved.
  • Yoo's church owns the website God.com.
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Imagine if Bernard Madoff founded the Branch Davidians and became a fugitive like O.J. Simpson after perpetrating the Challenger disaster, and you have something like an American analogy for what was going on in South Korea.

And that's where we were until news broke Monday that police had found Yoo's body. The emerging details have only made the situation stranger.

  • Yoo's body was actually found on June 12, decomposing, but was not immediately identified. The individual who discovered it thought he had found a deceased homeless person.
  • Yoo had reportedly been hiding behind the wall of a nearby cabin when police searched it on May 25.
  • The body was found in an apricot orchard (or, per some reports, a plum orchard).
  • Beside the body, according to reports: several bottles of alcohol, a shark-liver-oil product, and an extra shirt.
  • And a book called Greater Love Has No One Than This, apparently a reference to a Gospel verse about sacrificing one's life, that Yoo wrote in prison. (Or maybe it was called Dreamlike Love.)
  • And a magnifying glass.

So one of the richest men in South Korea—the proprietor of God.com—was found, after a shocking disaster and a massive manhunt, lying dead in an orchard near a book about love and a magnifying glass. (Or not—some, including the Evangelical Baptist Church, per the Economist, don't believe the body was Yoo's.)

What began as a tragedy has, while becoming no less tragic, turned into something out of a surreal, dread-permeated work of science fiction.

Ben Mathis-Lilley edits the Slatest. Follow @Slatest on Twitter.

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