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South Korea raises reward for tips on missing billionaire ferry owner

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SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea has boosted to half a million dollars a reward for tips about the mysterious billionaire who the authorities believe owns a ferry that sank last month, police said Monday. Meanwhile, five employees at the ship's operator have been indicted.

The ten-fold increase in the reward comes as officials struggle to find Yoo Byung-eun on allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Prosecutors have said that a failure to spend enough money on safety may be a reason for the April 16 sinking.

The sinking of the Sewol ferry left more than 300 people dead or missing, most of them high school students.

The $500,000 bounty is the same amount given if a South Korean citizen provides information about a North Korea-dispatched spy.

South Korea is also offering a bounty of $100,000 from Sunday, up from the previous $30,000, for Yoo's eldest son, according to the National Police Agency. He faces embezzlement allegations.

Yoo, head of the now-defunct predecessor of the ferry's current operator, Chonghaejin, allegedly still controls the company through a complex web of holding companies in which his children and close associates are large shareholders. Senior prosecutor Kim Hoe-jong said authorities believe Yoo is the chairman of Chonghaejin.

Five Chonghaejin employees including its CEO Kim Han-sik were indicted Monday for charges of professional negligence and violating a law on measures required for a safe maritime navigation, according to the Gwangju District Court in southern South Korea.

Court officials didn't elaborate, but prosecutors have said Kim was facing allegations that he was aware that the ferry exceeded its cargo limit but didn't do anything to stop it from leaving port. Officials suspect improper stowage and overloading of cargo may have contributed to the disaster. Calls to prosecutors seeking fresh comments Monday weren't immediately answered.

Prosecutors earlier this month indicted fifteen crew members tasked with the ship's navigation, four on homicide charges.

Nearly six weeks after the disaster, 288 bodies have been recovered and 16 people are missing. Efforts to retrieve the missing people have made little progress in recent days amid strong currents and bad weather, with divers failing to locate a new body from the sunken ferry since last Wednesday.

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