|President Moon Jae-in presides over a Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
President Moon Jae-in offered his first public apology, Tuesday, for allegations of speculative land purchases by some employees at the state-owned Korea Land & Housing Corporation (LH), amid a mounting public outcry over mismanagement by the government.
Now dubbed, the "LH scandal," the story has engulfed the nation after allegations were first raised two weeks ago that at least 20 LH employees used classified development information to purchase land in parts of Gyeonggi Province before the government's announcement of their designation as a major new town development projects last month.
The scandal has fueled doubts over the Moon Jae-in administration's housing policy and the sincerity of its goal to promote justice in all corners of society, which has been the President's trademark policy goal.
"Our government has done our utmost to fight corruption and unfairness, and to create a transparent society," Moon said. "However, there are many age-old tasks to be resolved. In particular, I think that we still have a long way to go when considering the real estate speculation scandal at LH. I am sorry for causing this great concern to people. In particular, my heart goes out to people who live diligently every day. We are determined to be more responsible about tackling corruption in our society."
The apology came after mounting calls from the public and opposition parties for Moon to apologize. One survey showed six out of 10 people believe a presidential apology was necessary.
But the presidential office had been reluctant to issue an apology until now. Moon and his supporters have blamed the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations for political and social ills, including "deep-rooted evils" related to land speculation, that continue to plague Korean society.
But that attitude only heaped more criticism on Moon for attempting to shift the blame on his predecessors.
The mounting public outcry raised concerns at Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which are afraid of losing in the by-elections for the mayors of Seoul and Busan, slated for April 7. The approval ratings for both the President and the DPK have been declining since the LH scandal erupted at the end of last month, raising fears that they might not only lose the by-elections but that this situation could potentially lead to a lame-duck presidency, with only about one year left in Moon's single, five-year term.
Some experts said the apology seems to have come too late.
"As with previous political controversies, Moon's apology came too late," Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership, said. "It has already been two weeks since the allegations were first raised and the public's anger grew beyond imagination. So it is doubtful whether the apology will have a real impact on improving public sentiments ahead of the elections."
In the meantime, the ruling party and the main conservative opposition People Power Party have agreed to launch a probe into the land purchases of all of their lawmakers, in addition to a special counsel investigation.