|President Moon Jae-in speaks during an event in South Chungcheong Province, March 12. Yonhap|
Land minister resigns; two LH employees found dead
By Do Je-hae
More people are demanding President Moon Jae-in apologize for a real estate scandal that has engulfed the nation.
Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum offered to resign March 12 over allegations of speculative land purchases by some employees at the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH), an affiliated agency of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, while he was serving as the CEO of the state housing corporation from April 2019 until December 2020.
But public sentiment is turning increasingly negative against President Moon Jae-in ahead of a crucial mayoral by-election for his ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) on April 7.
A recent survey showed that six out of 10 people want to see Moon apologize for the scandal, which is under investigation by a joint investigation team led by the Prime Minister's office. Cheong Wa Dae has also conducted an internal investigation into employees at the presidential office over their purchases in the areas designated for a major development project in Gyeonggi Province.
According to a survey of Seoul citizens conducted by the pollster STI on March 12 and 13, 61.5 percent of respondents said that a presidential apology on the land speculation scandal was necessary. The survey pointed out that the land speculation scandal has aggravated the public's frustration on issues of fairness and justice against the ruling bloc in the election season.
During a meeting with relevant ministries, Sunday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun underlined measures to root out speculation by LH employees. "In the future, LH executives and employees will be banned from acquiring land other than for actual use. We will fully implement a reform system that prevents LH executives and employees from sharing classified information on land development and committing illegal speculation. We will also develop a system for regular monitoring of land owned by them."
Moon accepted Byeon's offer of resignation March 12, only two days after Cheong Wa Dae said that the subject of dismissing the land minister, who took office in December 2020, did not come up at all during a meeting with the President and DPK leaders at Cheong Wa Dae on March 10. Ruling party veterans such as former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyeom and the prime minister have called on holding Byeon accountable for the scandal.
"The replacement of one person is not enough," Bae Jun-young, spokesperson of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), said in a statement. "President Moon must apologize to the people and present his plans to undertake a full-scale reform of state affairs."
The unusual swiftness with which Moon accepted Byeon's resignation is seen to reflect the sense of urgency held by Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling bloc to not to further upset the public and prevent a lame duck presidency in case of a loss in the by-elections in Seoul and Busan. Last week, two LH employees were found dead amid the ongoing investigations.
Since the scandal erupted late last month, Moon has made a series of strong orders for a thorough investigation and implementation of preventative measures. The presidential office has been reluctant to respond to the rising calls for an apology from the President while the investigations are still underway. "A second round of investigations will continue. The President ordered a thorough and intensive response until all suspicions are cleared," a presidential source said.
Cheong Wa Dae announced the results of the first stage of its internal investigation on senior aides and their family members on March 11 and underlined that there were "zero" cases of speculation.