SEOUL: A South Korean businessman and Christian sect leader, wanted on charges tied to a ferry disaster in which more than 300 passengers drowned, sought asylum at a Seoul embassy but was rejected, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Yoo Byung-un, 73, is wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion stemming from his control of a web of business interests centred on an investment firm owned by his sons that owned the operator of the doomed Sewol that sank on April 16.
"By international law, Yoo Byung-un is not a refugee but is a fugitive with an arrest warrant outstanding, so anyone who helps him flee will be deemed to be aiding his escape and will be firmly punished," a prosecutor said.
A person acting for Yoo contacted an embassy and asked about the possibility of Yoo seeking political asylum, he said.
He was turned down. Prosecutors declined to disclose which embassy was contacted by Yoo's representative, or if there were others.
The Sewol, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn, capsized and sank on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the vacation island of Jeju.
Most of the 476 passengers were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Divers are searching for 16 missing bodies.
The captain and surviving crew members were caught on video escaping the sinking ship while the children, wearing life jackets, stayed put in their cabins, as they had been told, awaiting further orders.
Authorities have offered a reward of half a million dollars for information leading to Yoo's arrest but he and his first son have eluded a massive manhunt that included a search of a religious commune south of Seoul where Yoo once had a photography studio. The second son is in the United States.
Prosecutors believe the Yoos are responsible for business decisions related to the renovation of the ferry and its operation that led to the country's worst maritime disaster in 20 years.
All 15 surviving crew members of the Sewol have been charged. The captain and three senior crew members face homicide charges. Nine crew were indicted for negligence and two on the lesser charge of abandoning the vessel.