The Park Administration needed someone to blame.
The Park Administration identified the Yoo Byung-eun family as the main culprit of the Sewol disaster soon after the accident. The government inappropriately used intelligence agencies to control and shape public opinion to turn the arrows of criticism away from them.
On April 28, 2014, less than two weeks after the Sewol sank, a name appeared for the first time in the Wall Street Journal’s ongoing coverage of the disaster: Yoo Byung-eun.
Mr. Yoo is a co-founder of the Seoul-based Evangelical Baptist Church. In 1987, he drew media attention when 32 members of the church were found dead, bound and gagged in a factory in Yongin, south of Seoul. The authorities investigated the incident at the time but didn’t press charges against the church, Mr. Yoo or other church members. The inquiry concluded the case was a group suicide.
A variation of that same story appeared in numerous Western news outlets that same day. The story was inaccurate – the dead were not members of the Evangelical Baptist Church, nor was Mr. Yoo a co-founder. Yoo was familiar to readers in Korea because of the 1987 mass suicide, although, as the story states, Mr. Yoo had no connection. But by juxtaposing Mr. Yoo with victims who were “dead, bound and gagged,” the writers hinted that an unsavory character was involved in the Sewol incident.
From this point onwards, Mr. Yoo and his family were cast as the prime culprits, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, which Yoo and his family were affiliated with, came to be described as a “cult” by then-President Park Geun-hye’s administration and the country’s news outlets. Those reports in South Korea would be picked up and amplified by the media across the world.
The Park Administration would relentlessly pursue Yoo and his family as villains in the sinking. Why? Because it allowed the administration to distract the world from its own failings. Public comments by Korean government officials made after the Sewol went down — but before the completion of any investigations — are like a messaging roadmap of how to place the blame anywhere but where it belongs. It also shows a complete betrayal of the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Indeed, the final report by the Social Disasters Commission released in September 2022 confirmed this, criticizing the administration’s illegal use of intelligence agencies for its own non-political ends as an abuse of power.
A President in Trouble
When the Sewol sank, the Park Administration was already struggling politically, dealing with corruption allegations and accused of meddling in elections. The administration’s evident failures the day of the tragedy amplified its struggles. The Coast Guard’s failure to rescue 250 school children– while at the same time refusing all offers of foreign help – sparked outrage throughout the grieving nation. The images and recordings of hundreds of students going to their doom stunned the world.
The Park Administration used every lever of the government, the military, and law enforcement to cast aspersions against Mr. Yoo, his family, and the Evangelical Baptist Church. The administration’s intent was to focus blame elsewhere while silencing criticism.
Official documents and internal notes show that the Blue House and the various intelligence and investigative agencies such as the NIS, the DSC, and the prosecution office were directly involved in monitoring, censoring, and manipulating public opinion to protect the administration.
The Park Administration’s decision to launch a nationwide “manhunt” to find Mr. Yoo naturally dominated coverage. By dispatching tens of thousands of police officers and soldiers to “find” Mr. Yoo, the Park Administration was able to draw nonstop media coverage.
To clearly see the methods used by the Park Administration, here are some key statements:
On May 20, 2014, with the wreck of the ferry still unexamined on the seabed, with only the most general, superficial aspects of the tragedy even vaguely understood, Prime Minister Jung Hong-won referenced the Yoo family when he said: “We need to show that both oneself and one’s family will be ruined if one causes an accident like this.”
A week later, on May 27, 2014, President Park said: “The family of Yoo Byung-eun is the fundamental cause of the disaster.”
Less than a week after that, on June 2, 2014, then-President Park said: “The escape of the family of Yoo Byung-eun, who was the main suspect in the Sewol ferry accident, is an act derogating the fundamental laws and order of our nation. They must be arrested immediately to resume law and order.”
And on August 5, 2014, then-President Park broadened the scope of her comments and was quoted by the YTN 24-hour news channel as saying that the prosecution and the police should work more closely together to trace the hidden assets of the Yoo family, extradite Yoo Byung-eun’s second son, and investigate those who were helping them.
The Korean Media is Largely Complicit
By mid-May 2014, Mr. Yoo dominated coverage in the media – in South Korea and around the world. Multiple outlets used negative or inaccurate language to describe him and the church. A story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal was entitled “Reward for Ferry Fugitive Tip-Offs Hits $500,000,” which included drawings of what Yoo and his son might look like if they dressed as gangsters.
Ultimately, Mr. Yoo’s body was identified in July 2014, even though it had been discovered one month earlier. No cause of death has been determined. Mr. Yoo and his children were only tangentially related to the operator of the Sewol, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and were not involved in day-to-day operations of the company; however, the headlines that accompanied the coverage around the body’s identification read, “The Ferry Family,” and “The Fugitive Family.”
In the Social Disasters Commissions’ report issued in September 2022, the committee members note that the Blue House tried to change the public opinion by focusing on the investigation of Yoo Byung-eun. They further state that the government defined the Sewol disaster as a disaster caused by the greedy wealth accumulation of the Yoo Byung-eun family, and note that the government used strong judicial measures to turn the arrows of criticism away from the Blue House and the government. The prosecutors’ office under the Park Administration provided extensive details related to the investigation and arrest operations of Yoo to reporters over a period of three months from April 29, 2014 to July 23, 2014. The Korean media shifted its focus on the information that was provided to them and that became the lasting narrative – in Korea and internationally.
The extensive corrections made in the Korean media go unnoticed and haven’t changed the narrative set forth by the Park administration since 2014.
The coverage of the Sewol incident demonstrated how a government can use its power to construct a narrative. The coverage of the Sewol incident helps us to understand the mechanics of the South Korean government and media, and how it used Mr. Yoo – and the Evangelical Baptist Church – as scapegoats to distract from their own errors.