Chonghaejin Marine’s ‘real’ owner hunted

Financial regulators have launched a joint investigation with customs and tax officials into Chonghaejin Marine, the operator of the sunken ferry Sewol, and its owner family.

The shipping firm’s majority stakeholder is Chonhaiji, a small shipbuilder controlled by I-One-I Holdings. Major shareholders of the holding firm include two sons of a 73-year-old mysterious businessman, Yoo Byung-eun.

Yoo has few stakes in these firms, but investigators believe he is their actual owner.

The probe came after President Park Geun-hye instructed the Cabinet to take stern measures against those responsible for the ship sinking, in which 108 passengers died and 194 others were still missing as of 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Along with some rescued crewmembers, who may face “unintentional murder” charges for deserting their ship without taking measures to save the passengers, Yoo could be subject to a criminal investigation.

Besides this, he is being examined for his possible involvement in financial crimes.

The Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) said it is looking into currency transactions by Chonghaejin Marine and Yoo’s family members.

“We are examining a wide range of business activities by the shipping firm, its affiliates and the owner family,” an FSS official said. “We hope this probe will shed light on their suspicious foreign currency transactions and how the Yoo family has accumulated wealth. We are tracing their overseas assets, valued at hundreds of millions of won.”

The National Tax Service is moving to launch a tax audit into Yoo’s firms. The Korea Customs Service is also examining overseas transactions by Chonghaejin Marine.

“We are collaborating with tax and customs officials as well as the prosecution to find evidence,” the FSS official said. “We can’t say yet whether we have secured any clues suggesting their involvement in irregularities. This probe may continue for weeks.”

The shipping firm is virtually a successor to Semo Marine, a cruise operator that went bankrupt in 1997. Yoo was the chairman of the bankrupt firm.

Yoo founded Chonghaejin Marine two years later after taking over ships and assets held by Semo Marine.

Yoo’s two sons are now controlling the shipping firm as well as its 13 unlisted affiliates through a complicated ownership structure. The value of stocks and properties owned by the two sons is estimated at over 166 billion won ($160 million), according to FSS officials.

In contrast, there are few reported assets owned directly by Yoo.

“Tax officials will also look into the wealth transfer from Yoo to his two sons,” another FSS official said.

Depending on the outcome of the investigations, Yoo may face huge inheritance tax and fines and be prosecuted for evading taxes.

Last week, the Justice Ministry banned Yoo and Kim Han-sik, CEO of Chonghaejin Marine, from traveling overseas.

Yoo reportedly was a friend of former President Chun Doo-hwan. Thanks to this relationship, he ran Semo Marine, which operated ferries on the Han River until it went bankrupt.

He was also known as a pastor who led a Christian cult. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 1992 in connection with a mass suicide case, in which 32 followers of a different cult were found dead in a factory in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. The cult’s leader, Park Soon-ja, had close ties with Yoo. By Na Jeong-ju The korea times

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