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South Korean police face criticism over discovery of ferry tycoon's body

SEOUL -- South Korea's police force was pilloried as doltish and incompetent Wednesday after announcing that a body found six weeks ago was that of a fugitive tycoon at the heart of a months-long manhunt.

Most major newspapers carried articles and editorials that ridiculed the police for expending massive financial and personnel resources in the search for a man already in one of their morgues.

Yoo Byung-eun, 73, became South Korea's most wanted man following the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster in which around 300 people died — most of them schoolchildren.

Yoo was the patriarch of the family that owned the ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., and was wanted for questioning over lax safety standards and regulatory violations.

On Tuesday, the police announced that DNA and fingerprint tests on a badly decomposed body found in a plum orchard on June 12 showed it to be that of Yoo.

Police said they initially believed the body — found near Yoo's final hiding place — was that of a homeless man, although it was clothed in an expensive Italian jacket and a nearby bag was found to contain Yoo's autobiography.

The fact that it took so long to identify the body was “pathetic at best,” said the JoongAng Ilbo daily in an editorial.

“Should we really spend our tax money on such police and prosecutors?” the editorial said.

The top-selling Chosun Ilbo ran a front-page headline mocking the “dumbfounding” failure to pick up on clear clues to the body's identity.

“The incompetence of police and prosecutors is simply astounding,” it said.

The Dong-A Ilbo noted that police had failed to check dental records in what it called an “utterly preposterous” lapse.

The site where the body was found was just outside the city of Suncheon, 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Seoul.

Addressing a press briefing on Tuesday, Suncheon police chief Woo Hyung-ho had acknowledged the “imperfect” nature of the investigation.

“We could have identified him far earlier if we had worked more actively,” said Woo, who was relieved of his post the same day.

The body was too decomposed to immediately ascertain the cause of death, although several empty bottles of alcohol were found at the scene.

Since the police announcement, social network sites and Internet news portals have been inundated with conspiracy theories, some questioning whether the body was Yoo's at all.

The JoongAng Ilbo said the police and prosecutors were “entirely responsible” for the speculation, given all the unanswered questions raised by the botched investigation.

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