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(LEAD) Lawmaker quits ruling party over alleged property speculation

Politics 14:30 January 20, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS more details, photos throughout)

SEOUL, Jan. 20 (Yonhap) -- A ruling party lawmaker embroiled in allegations of real estate speculation said Sunday that she will quit the Democratic Party (DP) and vowed to fight to the end to prove her innocence.

Rep. Sohn Hye-won has come under fire following allegations that she mobilized her relatives and aides to buy properties in an old district of Mokpo, 410 kilometers southwest of Seoul, before authorities designated it as a cultural asset site.

Sohn has strongly denied the suspicions. While announcing her decision to leave the party, she denounced the allegations as "fake news," insisting she has done nothing wrong and vowing to file a complaint against the TV station that first raised the suspicions.

Still, Sohn said she decided to quit the party to avoid placing a political burden on it.

"I cannot drive the people into a meaningless war of attrition. I'll give up party membership," Sohn told a press conference. "If the prosecution probe finds out that the allegation is true, I'll also give up my parliamentary seat."

Sohn said she will deal with all suspicions and return to the party.

This photo, taken Jan. 20, 2019, shows Rep. Sohn Hye-won of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) speaking to reporters at the National Assembly over allegations of real estate speculation. (Yonhap)

Sohn is alleged to have used inside information she obtained while serving on the parliamentary culture committee and to have provided money to her relatives for the purchases.

She has denied the allegations, claiming that she encouraged her aides to buy properties as an act of goodwill to revive the city.

Most of the buildings bought by Sohn's relatives and aides are believed to have been constructed during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial occupation.

Sohn is serving as the DP's chief of the parliamentary culture committee. She is believed to have raised the need to restore cultural assets in Mokpo at a budget panel meeting of the culture committee in November 2017.

At the press briefing, she actively defended herself while shrugging off the allegations.

"(Mokpo) has a good landscape and has a good historic value. If the country cannot come forward (to revive the city), I believe that I should help those who need help if (it is worth it)," Sohn said.

"I persuaded local residents there to open workshops and cafes and tried to publicize the site to attract people's attention," she said. "There would have been probably 200 to 300 people to whom I spoke about this (project), and thousands or tens of thousands of people would have heard of it via my Facebook messages."

The DP's leadership decided last week not to punish her, judging that she had not intended to make a speculative investment in properties.

But since then, the party has been facing negative public sentiment and criticism from opposition parties, who are calling for a prosecution investigation into the allegations.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) called for hearings in relevant parliamentary committees to uncover the truth in Sohn's case. It said the controversy was an issue of influence-peddling and corruption.

The LKP denounced what it called Sohn's bland press conference, saying that she should face prosecution investigation and give up her parliamentary seat.

Sohn said on her Facebook account Friday that she is willing to face a prosecution probe if the entities involved in the allegation and local broadcaster SBS, which first reported the case, also accept it.

The first-time lawmaker said Sunday that she will file a complaint against SBS for spreading false information and defaming her.

This photo, taken Jan. 17, 2019, shows a bird's-eye view of an old district in the country's southwestern city of Mokpo at the center of controversy over alleged real estate speculation by a ruling party lawmaker. (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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