Cult linked to S Korean ferry mogul probed

Family member of a victim onboard capsized Sewol ferry, prays for missing and dead passengers, as he releases a paper boat with a message for them, at a port in Jindo.

Amid a stepped-up probe into the sinking of the ferry Sewol, prosecutors have raided the Seoul headquarters of a religious group called the Salvation Sect, thought to be led by the true owner of the ill-fated ship.

Yoo Byeong-eon, a former chief of Semo Group, is believed to be leading the sect and presumed to be a veiled owner of Chonghaejin Marine, the much-criticised operator of the Sewol.

Prosecutors have been tracing Yoo's financial assets in an apparent attempt to hold him responsible for the massive compensation for the victims of the ferry disaster and their families. Human error is being blamed for the sinking that left nearly 300 people dead or missing.

Along with Yoo, many senior employees of Chonghaejin Marine including the captain of the doomed ferry are devout members of the Salvation Sect. Investigators suspect that the sect is a financial foundation for Yoo and his business entities.

Reports said that Yoo began his businesses to help members of his religious group to gain jobs and to increase his personal wealth. He reportedly made business funds from church members' offerings and investments, and took out loans with his church's real estates being held as collateral.

The sect was established in the 1960s by Pastor Kwon Sin-chan, Yoo's father-in-law. It has been divided into three offshoots including the Evangelical Baptist Church.

The sect has some 100 churches in Korea and about 200,000 members worldwide. Unlike other Christian organisations, the group is alleged to focus little on repentance ― a reason why it is seen as a heretical cult.

Speculation is rampant that loyal members of the sect have been engaged in a large pyramid sales scheme. Investigators have raided the headquarters of Dapanda, a multilayered marketing firm employing loyalists from the sect.

With nearly 60 branches across the country, Dapanda sells various items ranging from cosmetics to health food and kitchen products. The firm is thought to have thrived and secured stable marketing routes with backing from the sect's devout members.