|Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum participates in a session at the National Assembly, Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
Byeon Chang-heum, minster of land, infrastructure and transport, is facing growing calls to resign following a speculative land buying scandal involving employees of a state corporation he headed before joining the Cabinet in December 2020.
The former CEO of the Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH) has emerged at the center of public anger over allegations that LH employees had bought farmlands in Siheung and Gwangmyeong in Gyeonggi Province before the announcement of new mega town projects there. Byeon served as CEO of the state-run corporation from April 2019 until December 2020.
Even some members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) have started to demand Byeon's resignation to take responsibility for the scandal, which is feared to aggravate public sentiment toward the Moon Jae-in administration's housing policy with the by-elections in Seoul and Busan only weeks away.
Park Soo-hyun, a high-level official at the DPK and a former spokesman for President Moon, said that Byeon has made things worse by making comments that angered the public. Byeon told a local broadcaster, "I don't think the employees at LH bought the land based on prior knowledge about the new town development project, and the region was included in the project after their purchase." He also brushed off the scandal as an exceptional case involving only a small number of LH employees and stressed that he has "always tried to curb land speculation" while leading the organization.
"He must resign in the near future. The people are struggling so much with housing issues," Park said during a TV interview, Tuesday.
"Young people want to purchase a house by using all possible means, but they now say they have been left speechless by the LH scandal," he said. "In this situation, Byeon added fuel to the fire with his remarks."
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also said the minister's remarks were inappropriate. "If anybody needs to take responsibility, that person will do," he said in a radio interview, Wednesday.
But he said it was more important to uncover the facts first.
Some conservative politicians are calling on President Moon to dismiss the land minister. In a Facebook post, Hong Joon-pyo, a former presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, said Byeon must be removed immediately in order to ensure the integrity of the government investigation into the scandal.
Despite rising calls for Byeon's resignation, President Moon made remarks supporting the land minister, saying that the housing supply plan initiated by Byeon must proceed as planned. "There should be no disruption in the implementation of the Feb. 4 real estate measures. Measures for housing supply must be implemented more quickly," he said, Tuesday.
The remarks were seen to suggest that Moon is not considering replacing the land minister despite the scandal.
During a meeting with high-ranking ruling party officials at Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday, Moon ordered a "fundamental approach" to dealing with speculative property purchases among the public sector. He said it might be a "structural problem" of the organization, indicating he does not want to directly blame the former head of LH.