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Seo Joong-seok, director general of South Korea's National Forensic Service (NFS), gives a briefing on the cause of death of businessman Yoo Byung-un, at the agency office in Seoul July 25, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji


By Ju-min Park and Kahyun Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's forensic agency said on Friday it was impossible to determine the cause of death of a businessman linked to a ferry that sank killing 304 people in April because there was too much tissue damage to his badly decomposed body.

Yoo Byung-un, 73, was found dead in an orchard on June 12 after eluding authorities for nearly two months in South Korea's biggest manhunt, hiding behind the wall of a rural cabin in the final days while it was being searched.

Police identified his body only this week, 40 days after a farmer reported its discovery at his orchard, stirring public anger over what many said was incompetent work to arrest Yoo over the ferry disaster that horrified the country.

An autopsy and DNA tests on the body revealed no evidence that he was poisoned, and there was also no indication of external trauma, forensic agency chief Seo Joong-seok told a news conference.

"We are aware there are many questions and did our best, but it was impossible to determine the cause of death," said Lee Han-young, a senior official at the forensic agency.

"It is possible in some cases involving decomposed bodies to determine the cause of death but, in Yoo Byung-un's case, there was simply too much tissue damage so it was difficult to find leads that can determine the cause of death," he said.

Yoo headed the family that owned the operator of the ferry, Sewol, which capsized and sank on April 16. Many of those killed were children from the same school on a class trip. The disaster triggered outrage across South Korea, especially when video footage emerged of crew members abandoning ship while the children stayed in their cabins as instructed.

The Sewol's 15 surviving crew, including the captain, are on trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide.

Yoo was wanted on charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion but managed to elude authorities in what became a political headache for President Park Geun-hye, whose government came under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster.


Later on Friday, Yoo's elder son, Yoo Dae-gyun, who was also wanted on suspicion of embezzlement, was captured in an apartment near Seoul, prosecutors said. His capture follows the arrests of several other family members, including the senior Yoo's wife and brother.

Yoo Dae-gyun is one of two sons who co-owned the holding company at the centre of a network of business interests that included the ferry operator. But he was not believed to have been as actively involved in management as his younger brother, who is believed to be in the United States.

The junior Yoo said he had learned of his father's death from police just a few moments before and chided reporters: "How would you feel when your parent had died?"

Media reports said he had no access to phones or the Internet in the cramped apartment on the outskirts of Seoul where he had been staying since the accident.

"Nobody came out of there, and the door would shut when there was the sound of a footstep," a neighbour, Kim Taek-sang said.

The failure by the national forensic agency to determine how Yoo died, and how his body arrived at the spot where it was found, is likely to add pressure on authorities to arrest two other close associates accused of aiding his flight.

A senior prosecutor who headed the investigation resigned on Thursday, claiming responsibility for botched moves that allowed Yoo to remain at large for so long.

Three police officers, including the provincial chief of the region where his body was found, were sacked this week.

($1 = 1025.8000 Korean Won)

(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Alison Williams)

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