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October 31, 2014

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S. Korea lab fails to find out how ferry owner died

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Yonhap / AP

In this image taken from video released by News Y via Yonhap, passengers from a ferry sinking off South Korea’s southern coast, are rescued by a South Korean Coast Guard helicopter in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Nearly 300 people were still missing Wednesday several hours after the ferry carrying 477, most of them high school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea’s southern coast.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's state-run forensic lab said Friday it has failed to determine the cause of death for a fugitive billionaire blamed for April's ferry disaster, amid mounting public criticism that authorities didn't identify his body for a long time and still continued a massive manhunt for him.

Police said Tuesday that a badly decomposed body found in a southern rural area on June 12 was identified as Yoo Byung-eun. Police cited DNA and fingerprints taken by the National Forensic Service.

Authorities had sought the 73-year-old, believing he was the real owner of the sunken ferry's company and that his alleged corruption may have contributed to the April 16 disaster that left more than 300 people dead, mostly high school students traveling to a southern resort island.

The news quickly fueled public indignation following revelations authorities did not even suspect the body could be Yoo's until recently and had still continued large-scale manhunts for him — even though his body was found near one of his villas that was raided in May and items found near the remains could have offered clues about his identity. DNA tests on Yoo's body took about 40 days and critics say officials could have done it sooner if they suspected it was him.

Prosecutors later admitted that Yoo's detained secretary told investigators her boss was hidden behind a wall on the second floor during the May 25 search of his villa.

A high-level prosecutor resigned and two senior police officers were dismissed, but South Korean opposition lawmakers and media called for higher level officials to also step down.

On Friday, the forensic service said that it has conducted additional tests on Yoo's body but couldn't establish the exact cause of death because the body had decayed too much.

Agency chief Seo Joongseok and other forensic doctors told a televised news conference that they did not find any evidence showing that Yoo was poisoned, suffocated or died of external pressures or any disease. Police have said they haven't found any evidences that Yoo was killed.

The main liberal opposition party quickly criticized the announcement, saying it failed to resolve rampant speculation on Yoo's death. It came as the conservative government of President Park Geun-hye has already faced public indignation over its handling of the sinking.

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