Cults, crashes and K-pop: Who is Yoo Byung-eun and how is he related to JYP?
Image above: A memorial for the victims of the Sewol tragedy that Yoo Byung-eun is linked to.
The world of international K-pop news tends to not involve itself too much with the wider sphere of Korean news and current affairs but every so often a K-pop story will come up which brings a major non-entertainment story to the attention of English-speaking K-pop fans. This is exactly what happened this week when a man who had been continuously in Korean news headlines for weeks on end made his way into the K-pop sphere after it appeared that his brother’s arrest caused the share price of JYP Entertainment to drop.
An inventor, a photographer, a multi-millionaire, a religious sect leader with links to an infamous mass suicide, a con artist, the possible owner of the ferry operator responsible for April’s tragic crash and Korea’s most wanted man. All of these are terms one could use to describe recently arrested Yoo Byung-eun. But who is he and how did he become the most reviled man in Korea?
In Korea, Yoo is often referred to as ‘the millionaire with no face’ due to his slightly mysterious persona and personal background. He first rose to prominence when the religious sect he is believed to have co-founded and acted as pastor within was implicated in a mass murder-suicide that happened in 1987. I should warn you this will only get darker from here on out.
Yoo co-founded the Korean Evangelical Baptist Church alongside his father-in-law in 1962. But this is no ordinary church. The religion is often described as part of the Salvation Sect (or ‘guwonpa’) which has been widely condemned as heretical by the mainstream Christian community in South Korea. Some have even described it as a cult due to its more extreme beliefs and practice of asking believers to give large sums of money to the organisation. However it was an incident that happened in 1987 that really gave the group a bad name in Korea.
Park Soon-ja was the 48-year-old owner of a company called Odaeyang Trading (or Five Seas Trading) and the leader of a splinter group of Yoo’s sect, which the company acted as a front for, when the bodies of Ms. Park, her three children and 29 other members of the cult were found bound and gagged in the attic of the company’s factory. Prior to her death, Park had borrowed and extorted more than 8 billion won from her followers and their families and reportedly preached about the end of days being near.
Mostly due to lack of evidence, the police soon closed the case ruling it to be a mass suicide. However after five company members came forward a few years later confessing to having killed one of the company’s main officers (and chief witness/suspect in the case), the investigation reopened. This time, the investigators found that the money trail for the billions and billions of won Odaeyang had extracted from its followers led straight back to another company called Semo Corporation owned by, you guessed it, none other than Yoo Byung-eun.
Semo Corp. was a company founded by Yoo in 1979 who had already acquired a textile business. Initially the company worked in shipping but it expanded into various different industries including cosmetics, real estate and ferry operations (which we will be coming back to). The second investigation found Yoo clear of any involvement with the actual murders – although there are all kinds of conspiracy theories about this and he is believed to be responsible for making the ex-company members come forward to the police to detract attention from his church. Despite being cleared of this, he was found guilty of fraud due to all the money he had extorted from his followers in his church and then funnelled into his businesses serving four years in prison.
The business went into liquidation around the time of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, partially due to Yoo’s prison sentence as well as various other accidents and scandals. This, however, did not stop Yoo who completely restructured the company, selling off all the company’s ferry assets to a newly set-up business called Chonghaejin Marine Co. which just so happened to be owned by a holding company owned by Yoo’s two sons.
You may recognise Chonghaejin Marine as the company responsible for the Sewol tragedy which took place in the middle of April and killed hundreds of passengers, mostly high school students. In the clamber to hold those responsible for the crash to account, initially the police focussed on taking in the crew on board the vessel, 15 were arrested in total, but as the investigation ran on the net got wider. After indicting the CEO and 4 other employees, the police started to intensify their hunt for Yoo and his two sons.
The search for Yoo has grown in scale with the award offered for information on his whereabouts increasing tenfold from 50 million to 50 billion won. After several high profile raids on the compound of the Evangelical Baptist Church and travel restrictions placed on him by the Korean government, including one which reportedly involved 9,000 officers, he has so far been able to continue to evade arrest. His family members however have not been so lucky and his wife, daughter, sister, her husband, and two brothers have all been arrested.
This is JYP finally comes in.
One of the brothers, Yoo Byung-ho, was recently arrested for embezzlement. This does not look so good for JYP Entertainment as Park Jin-young’s new bride is in fact Yoo Byung-ho’s daughter. Rumours have been floating around that the father-in-law had channelled hundreds of millions of won into the entertainment company. Although nothing has been found so far, the Financial Supervisory service has been looking into the entertainment company’s finances which has had prolonged negative impact on its share prices. After the arrest, it dropped even further and all in all has lost one third of its value since before the crash in mid-April.
This has led many to speculate about Park Jin-young’s personal connection to the cult with netizens pointing to his odd behaviour on more recent TV appearances on Healing Camp and Radio Star. So far nothing concrete has come out regarding his connection to the religion itself but as the story continues to play out the potential for JYP Entertainment to suffer large long term damage becomes greater and greater.
It is possible Park might feel some kind of connection to Yoo as a fellow ‘artist’. Yoo has been working mainly as a photographer under the pseudonym ‘Ahae’ (meaning ‘little child’ in old Korean), a nickname supposedly given to him by his congregations. As Ahae, Yoo has exhibited his work in the Louvre in France accompanied by a score by famous composer Michael Nyman, proving just how far enough money can get you.
Yoo Byung-eun is clearly a terrible and morally bankrupt person with potentially decades of fraud, embezzlement and unethical business practices to his name. However his ability to reinvent himself to escape his past is almost impressive in its deplorability. It is unknown how much longer he will be able to continue to escape police grasp but when and if he is finally caught, the impact is likely to reach far and wide.
With so many connections in business, entertainment, politics and art (to name just a few) who knows how many will be dragged under with him, when the tide of public opinion finally catches up with Yoo Byung-eun.