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As Sewol returns, new photography of late de facto owner emerges

2017/03/29 13:21

By Chang Dong-woo

SEOUL, March 29 (Yonhap) -- For many South Koreans, the image of the damaged Sewol ferry raised from its watery grave last week was a potent reminder that the accident from three years ago is a still on-going disaster.

And as the Sewol makes its last trip to shore, it's been learned that a publishing company that represented the late Yoo Byung-eun -- the mysterious billionaire who was the ferry's de facto owner -- has been selling Yoo's personal photography works to this day, nearly three years after his death in 2014.

This file photo shows the Sewol ferry being loaded on a semisubmersible transport vessel in waters near Jindo, 472 kilometers southwest of Seoul, on March 26, 2017. The passenger ferry sank on April 16, 2014, killing more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a school trip, in the nation's worst maritime disaster. Nine bodies are still missing. (Yonhap) This file photo shows the Sewol ferry being loaded on a semisubmersible transport vessel in waters near Jindo, 472 kilometers southwest of Seoul, on March 26, 2017. The passenger ferry sank on April 16, 2014, killing more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a school trip, in the nation's worst maritime disaster. Nine bodies are still missing. (Yonhap)

In the wake of the Sewol tragedy in April 2014, the 73-year-old Yoo, former chairman of Semo Group, the now-defunct predecessor of the Sewol ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., was the target of an intensive prosecutors' investigation into alleged corruption and irregularities associated with the sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry. More than 300 people, mostly high school students, were killed.

Yoo went into hiding for months. And amid a massive nationwide manhunt, he was found dead in July of 2014 in an apricot orchard in the southern city of Suncheon, about 415 kilometers south of Seoul, decomposing.

Through wall-to-wall media coverage, the nation learned a lot about Yoo then, including his business empire and religious organization known as the Salvation Group. His particular love for nature photography, which grew into more than a hobby, was also heavily covered.

To this day, hundreds of photos of nature taken can be viewed at www.ahae.com, a website run by his publishing company Ahae Press. Yoo published and exhibited his works under the name Ahae.

This image captured from Ahae Press' website shows photo collections shot by late Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the Sewol ferry that was capsized in 2014, killing more than 300 people. After hiding from prosecutors for months, Yoo was found dead in July 2014. (Yonhap) This image captured from Ahae Press' website shows photo collections shot by late Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the Sewol ferry that was capsized in 2014, killing more than 300 people. After hiding from prosecutors for months, Yoo was found dead in July 2014. (Yonhap)

Yonhap has learned that Ahae Press remains in business for 32 months since Yoo's death. The company's website said it is based in Mount Kisco, New York.

The company has recently uploaded 141 of Yoo's new photos under "Portfolio 2016," ranging from dynamic to somewhat mundane snapshots of small animals and natural scenery. "Portfolio 2015" has 45 images in it.

Ahae Press explains that all photos were taken from "just one window" at Yoo's studio, presumed to be in the Salvation Group's compound named Geumsoowon, located south of Seoul.

Copies of Yoo's photos can be bought at www.ahaeproducts.com. His "Portfolio 2016" works come in a 13-by-19-inch frame and are sold for US$3,500 each. A score of Ahae-themed merchandise, such as cups, mouse pads and even jigsaw puzzles, are also available for purchase.

Yonhap called the office of Ahae Press in New York and spoke with a female receptionist named Amy. Inquiries on the company's business have not been answered though.

Exactly when the photos were taken could not be verified, but a former Salvation Group member who asked for anonymity said the pictures were probably shot before the Sewol incident.

"Yes, the photos were from pre-Sewol. Sometimes when he was focused, he shot pictures all day," said the ex-Salvation Group member who was close to Yoo.

Born in 1941 in Kyoto, Yoo founded the Salvation Group, also known as the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, with his father-in-law in 1962. He later started a shipping business and founded Semo Group in 1979, a holding company that did business in shipping, domestic ferries and various other ventures.

Since 2011, he began promoting and marketing himself as a photographer. According to Ahae Press, Yoo's first photo project, titled "Through My Window," began in 2009 and continued for four years. His debut exhibition was held at the Grand Central Terminal in New York.

Chung Dong-sup, a former professor of Christian counseling at the Korea Baptist Theological University, also assessed that most of the 2016 photos on Ahae Press' website were likely taken before the Sewol accident.

"He had a knack for trying out something new," said Chung, who was a close confidant of Yoo up until 1978, when he left the Salvation Group. "Earlier he had a knack for toys and the maritime business. He even mulled running a TV network."

   Yoo later held exhibitions throughout Europe, including in the Czech Republic, Italy, Great Britain, Moscow and France.

Reports from French and British media, including L'Express, Le Monde and The Times, pointed out that Yoo self-financed the exhibitions at the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles in 2012 and 2013, securing the usage of prestigious venues through large donations. The Salvation Group though claims that all of Yoo's exhibitions were authorized by committees of respective institutions after acknowledging "the artistic value of Ahae's works."

   In 2014, in light of the Sewol tragedy, the French government barred a then-scheduled exhibition in Compiegne, northern France, out of respect for the victims, bringing an end to Yoo's short-lived career in photography.

odissy@yna.co.kr

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