World News

South Korea minister at centre of property scandal offers to resign

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean government minister at the centre of a growing insider property speculation scandal offered his resignation on Friday as President Moon Jae-in urged a thorough investigation of the allegations.

An initial government investigation found at least 20 employees of the Korea Land and Housing Corp (LH) were suspected of trying to use classified knowledge to buy undeveloped land before new development projects were slated to begin in the areas. Opposition lawmakers said there could be dozens more involved.

Though he has not been implicated personally, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Byeon Chang-heum served as head of the corporation from April 2019 until December 2020, when he was nominated as minister.

Moon’s senior press secretary, Chung Man-ho, told a briefing that Byeon offered to step down. Moon said Byeon “could not help but be held accountable” for the scandal but asked him to complete more work on an ambitious housing project before resigning, Chung said.

Earlier in the day, Byeon apologised for the scandal in remarks to a parliamentary hearing, adding that he would draw up measures to resolve the situation and reform LH, and would resign if Moon determined he had failed.

“I will do painful soul-searching and will draw up institutional measures so that this won’t happen again,” Byeon said.

Yonhap news agency reported that a senior LH official was found dead of an apparent suicide in front of his apartment in Seongnam, south of Seoul, leaving a letter saying that he was sorry for doing “undesirable things” when he headed LH’s office in the province of North Jeolla.

The scandal comes as property prices have soared, making affordable housing increasingly out of reach for many residents, particularly in the densely populated capital of Seoul and surrounding areas.

The furore is also threatening the prospects for Moon’s ruling Democratic Party in elections next month for the mayors of the country’s two largest cities, Seoul and Busan, which polls show may be lost to conservative candidates.

The executive vice president of LH has apologised and pledged to cooperate.

Moon called for a thorough investigation into all suspicious dealings involving LH employees and public officials and their relatives and ordered aides to craft ways to confiscate any illicit profits.

“The initial findings are only the beginning,” Moon said, according to his spokesman, Kang Min-seok. “What has been discovered so far could be the tip of an iceberg. We must reveal the whole picture.”

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel