Even before Yoo Byeung-eun, the de facto owner of the sunken Sewol ferry, and his second son, Dae-gyun, are arrested, the public has already decided that they deserve the death sentence for their role in the tragedy. However, their guilt may not be easy to prove in court.
Yoo, 72, is a clever businessman who knows how to abuse legal loopholes. Although he runs a multi-billion-dollar business empire that includes a wide range of businesses from ferry operation to health food marketing, his children and associates bear the legal titles to all his companies and real estate. Because of this, he is widely known as a "faceless photographer" both at home and abroad and has many foreign friends who remember him as a generous contributor to museums overseas. He also sold his photographs at exorbitant prices to his companies and regularly received consulting fees from his business empire, which has links to a Christian cult.
The prosecution holds Yoo and his son criminally, financially and ethically accountable for the unprecedented Sewol tragedy. They are on a wanted list with a reward of 600 million won (about $580,000) for their capture — the largest for any criminal suspect in Korea. Prosecutors claim Yoo misappropriated and evaded taxes amounting to 139 billion won (about $120 million).
The prosecution's claims, however, are difficult to prove. No documents show that Yoo is a registered owner, a major shareholder or an executive of the ferry operation, although prosecutors claim he controls it. Even if he were sentenced in the lower court, the ruling may be overruled by the higher court for lack of evidence, and his legal punishment may be less than what the people want.
The National Assembly also seeks to pass a special bipartisan bill that would allow the government to confiscate all of the Yoo family's assets and use them to provide compensation to the Sewol victims and their families. President Park Geun-hye seems to agree with this proposal.
Yoo may appeal to the Constitutional Court, saying passing a special law that targets him and applying this law retroactively is unconstitutional. Such an appeal is unlikely to be successful, however, given that he is already guilty in the eyes of the public and even lawmakers.
Indeed, unlike the public and the government, many lawyers, including those from overseas, have expressed the concern that Yoo and his son do not have enough legal protection. No law firm wants to represent them out of fear of backlash from the public. Further, defending them would be difficult in a society that does not seem to recognize the presumption of innocence. For example, in a report to the National Assembly last week, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said he expects the court to issue maximum sentences to those responsible for the deaths of the ferry passengers.
International conventions ask countries to abide by the principle that every suspect is innocent until proven guilty. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense."
Indeed, an OECD report suggests that legal protection of defendants is not generally upheld in Korea. The report ranks Korea at 29th out of 32 member countries in terms of legal justice in 2012.
Out of desperation and frustration, Yoo and his supporters placed an advertisement in the Washington Post, claiming that Yoo is not culpable in the tragedy. The advertisement says, "Is President Park Geun-hye letting Korean democracy sink with the ferry?" They also created an online petition to the White House, to seek U.S. support. Yoo's religious followers allegedly urge his friends overseas to protest the government's efforts to turn Yoo into a scapegoat and to suppress religious freedom in Korea.
According to Yoo and his supporters, the government picked him as a scapegoat to absolve others, including President Park, Cabinet ministers, regulators, inspectors and other government officials, of their wrongdoings.
Nonetheless, the angry Korean public wants Yoo and his son to be jailed immediately and dismiss those who want to uphold the presumption of innocence as followers of the Christian cult Yoo supports.
University of Maryland sociology professor Jon Huer said, "Presumption of innocence would be both impossible and unwarranted in a case as traumatic and widely reported as the Sewol. It is normally about cases where the public is emotionally and culturally unrelated. Even in the U.S., presumption of innocence in such a case would be unlikely." He says that the Sewol-like accidents generally bring down governments.
But the public must remember that Korea is a law-abiding society that provides everyone, including people like Yoo, with a fair chance to defend himself or herself in court.
The Sewol tragedy will not be fully addressed by penalizing only Yoo and his son. The National Assembly and the Board of Audit and Inspection must identify the causes of and the people responsible for the accident and find ways to compensate the victims and their families and prevent a similar tragedy from occurring.
Whatever crimes Yoo and his son are charged with, we — including the public and lawmakers — should recognize that they deserve a fair chance in court. As a law-abiding society, we should recognize that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
Lee Chang-sup is The Korea Times vice president and editor-in-chief. Contact him at email@example.com.