|People are seen at the entrance of the headquarters of the Korea Land and Housing Corp. in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, Wednesday. Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
Public anger is mounting over allegations that employees at the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) housing cooperation used inside information on a residential area development project for land speculation.
The public is also skeptical of the government's planned investigation on the deals made by the officials, given that the property purchases were made while the current land minister was at the helm of the housing corporation. The Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport will jointly lead the interagency probe.
The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Lawyers for a Democratic Society, an association of progressive lawyers, accused 14 former and incumbent employees at LH of speculative land buying in Gwangmyeong and Shiheung, which had been designated as sites for the country's third new town development plan to increase the supply of new homes in satellite cities. As a result, President Moon Jae-in ordered the government Thursday to conduct a thorough probe into the case, referencing to the incident twice in as many days.
A petition calling for a National Assembly inspection into the case has also been posted on the Cheong Wa Dae website.
"I am dejected to see LH officials' speculative purchase as I had high expectations for the new town plan. The government's call for justice and fairness sounds hollow. I hope that deep-rooted corruption will be thoroughly eradicated," the petitioner said.
"In that respect, I am calling on the National Assembly to launch an investigation into the case."
Other citizens also voiced frustration after learning of the allegations.
"It is questionable whether the government can carry out its plan to root out land speculation as well as curb skyrocketing housing prices, due to the corruption among officials at state-run organizations," an office worker in Seoul told The Korea Times on the condition of anonymity.
"I wonder how much trust people will have in the government's efforts to deal with the mounting anger over soaring home prices and rental costs."
Following the allegations, Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Byeon Chang-heum apologized Thursday for the illegal land speculation allegedly made by his former subordinates, vowing to prevent any recurrence of such cases.
"I am deeply responsible for the scandal as the then-head of the organization," Byeon said in a press briefing.
"The government plans to stringently restrict real estate transactions by public officials in charge of such development projects if the purchase is not to buy a house as a main residence, while mandating that they report their real estate transactions. In addition, we will seek punitive measures against those who purchase properties using inside information even though they have nothing to do with the development projects."
LH also issued a public apology, vowing to introduce a system that will check property purchases involving its employees.
"The corporation will fully cooperate with the government's investigation into the speculative land deals by public officials and if any illegal speculation is verified, we will strictly deal with those cases," it said in a statement, adding that it will run checks on property possessed by its officials before launching new land development projects.
However, internet posts by some LH officials have only added fuel to the angry public sentiment.
"There is no law prohibiting LH officials from investing in real estate," one worker wrote on Blind, an anonymous chat app for verified employees.
"It falls on the judgment of a court or the prosecution whether their investment was made based on inside information or their own research on real estate trends."
Another LH employee also wrote, "While a large number of people invest in real estate, I believe that other public officials and those working for state-run companies have purchased property in the Gwangmyeong area."
The allegations of real estate speculation have dealt a heavy blow to the Moon administration, which has been under fire for its failure to stabilize soaring home prices. Despite announcing 25 sets of measures to curb real estate speculation, the government's efforts have yet to pay off. Also, ahead of the mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, the issue is emerging as an unfavorable factor for the government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.