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Skepticism rising over investigation into LH speculation scandal

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Posts condemning alleged illegal speculative land purchases by workers at the Korea Land & Housing Corporation (LH) are attached to the front gate of LH's Seoul office, Tuesday. Yonhap
Posts condemning alleged illegal speculative land purchases by workers at the Korea Land & Housing Corporation (LH) are attached to the front gate of LH's Seoul office, Tuesday. Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

The government has launched a massive investigation into ministries and public organizations to look into possible illegal speculative land purchases by employees or family members using confidential information.

The probe comes after it was alleged that a dozen officials at the Korea Land & Housing Corporation (LH) used classified information to purchase about 10 billion won worth of farmland in Siheung and Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi Province, before the government announced the development of major new town projects in these cities.

But skepticism is rising about the effectiveness and reliability of such a government-led investigation.

At the direction of President Moon Jae-in, the Prime Minister's Office began the investigation by setting up an interagency team. The initial stage of the probe will focus on 23,000 officials, including 9,900 employees at LH and 4,500 at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

As part of the investigation, the Gyeonggi Nambu Police Agency raided the LH national headquarters in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, and the LH regional offices in Gwacheon and Incheon.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun vowed to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations. "We're going to get to the bottom of the matter, and we're going essentially to block any illegal speculation attempts," Chung said during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. "The government, which is striving to eradicate real estate speculation and stabilize the housing market, is taking this matter very seriously."

President Moon has ordered the probe into the case in order to avoid it from further undermining public trust in his housing policy, which is already considered one of his weakest areas, ahead of crucial by-elections for his ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) to elect mayors in Seoul and Busan.

Police investigators leave a regional office of the Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH) in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday, after conducting a search and seizure operation connected to allegations of illegal speculative land buying by some LH employees
Police investigators leave a regional office of the Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH) in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday, after conducting a search and seizure operation connected to allegations of illegal speculative land buying by some LH employees

The government stressed a policy of zero tolerance and declared a strict response, saying it would seize up to three to five times the amount of undue gains. However, the prevailing view is that it is difficult to escape the limits of a government-led investigation of its own institutions and officials.

Questions are surfacing about the administration's sincerity to get to the bottom of the case, particularly due to the limited scope of the investigation. Currently, this is focusing on officials in related ministries and state-run companies, and their direct family members, including spouses, children and parents. The investigation does not include the officials' siblings or in-laws.

Also, it will not be easy to uncover land purchases if they are made under false names.

Critics say the government, which has been at odds with the prosecution over the prosecutorial reform issue, excluded the prosecution initially and formed an investigation team mainly with members from the land ministry and the police. But insiders at the prosecution say the raid was already late and only gave officials, if there were any who had made speculative land purchases, time to destroy any relevant evidence.

"In order to increase public trust in the results of the government's investigation, it is necessary for a separate investigative agency, as well as the Board of Audit and Inspection, to look into the case," the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which first raised the allegations based on tips from an insider, said in a commentary Monday.


Do Je-hae jhdo@koreatimes.co.kr


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