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South Korea ferry disaster: Body of missing shipping tycoon found

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April 17, 2014: South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard sunken ferry Sewol in the waters off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea. (AP)

South Korean police said Tuesday that they had found the body of a fugitive businessman wanted in connection with April's ferry disaster that left more than 300 people, many of them high school students, dead or missing. 

Police spokesman Wu Hyung-ho told a televised news conference that the body of a man identified as Yoo Byung-eun was found in an agricultural field in the southern South Korean city of Suncheon on June 12. Wu said that the body was decomposed beyond recognition when it was found, but results of DNA and fingerprint tests matched those of the billionaire. 

The cause of Yoo's death is not known. Police said he was wearing a pair of expensive shoes and a costly Italian-made jacket. Also found near him were three empty Korean local liquor bottles, a bag and a magnifying glass, according to police.

Authorities believe Yoo was the owner of the ferry, the MV Sewol, and say that his alleged corruption may have contributed to its sinking.

The sinking, one of South Korea's deadliest disasters in decades, has caused an outpouring of national grief, and the country is undergoing national soul searching about public safety. About 100 days after the disaster, 294 dead bodies have been retrieved but 10 people are still missing.

Police and prosecutors had been seeking Yoo for weeks and offered a $500,000 reward for tips about him.

Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's current operator, Chonghaejin, allegedly still controlled the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. The government offered a $100,000 bounty for Yoo's eldest son, and one of his daughters was arrested in France in May.

The predecessor company, Semo Marine, went bankrupt in the late 1990s but Yoo's family continued to operate ferry businesses under the names of other companies, including one that eventually became Chonghaejin.

Yoo is also a member of a church that critics and defectors say is a cult. Yoo's church made headlines in 1987 when 32 people, who critics suspect were church members, were found dead in the attic of a factory near Seoul in what authorities said was a collective murder-suicide pact. Church members have denied involvement.

Yoo was investigated over the deaths after a probe into the dead people's financial transactions showed some of their money was funneled to him. He was cleared of suspicions that he was behind the suicides because of a lack of evidence, but was convicted on a separate fraud charge.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.