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By Lee Chi-dong and Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL/SUWON, South Korea, March 3 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in called Wednesday for a far-reaching probe into the suspicions that some officials at a state housing corporation had illegally bought undeveloped land near Seoul on the basis of internal information on plans to create new towns there.
The call was made a day after the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civic group, and Minbyun, an association of progressive lawyers, accused 14 employees at the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) of speculative land buying in Gwangmyeong and Siheung.
Later that day, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it has suspended 12 people from their duties. The remaining two were former employees, it added. After the ministry's initial probe, the number of incumbent officials suspected of being involved in the case rose to 13 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Moon instructed the government to make a meticulous inspection, based on "complete enumeration," of land transactions by the employees of the LH, the land ministry and other relevant government institutions and their families not only in the two cities but also in other Gyeonggi Province regions picked by the government for large-scale development plans aimed at stabilizing the housing market, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok.
The ministry said it will soon examine all transactions made by the officials and their family members in the regions.
In a series of announcements starting in late 2018, the government unveiled plans to create new towns in several other parts of Gyeonggi Province, which include the Gyosan zone in Hanam and Wangsook in Namyangjoo.
Moon ordered stern responses in case of any illicit activities being confirmed, including law-enforcement authorities' broader investigation, Kang added.
He also urged "systemic" measures to prevent such allegations from recurring.
The government will launch a task force on Thursday to investigate all land transactions by public officials in the areas subject to the government-led development projects, officials said.
All employees of the Seoul metropolitan government, LH, the land ministry, Gyeonggi Urban Innovation Corp. and other relevant government institutions will be subject to the investigation, they said.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun is likely to announce plans for the joint investigation team in a briefing on Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Police also began investigating the allegations. The anti-corruption unit of Gyeonggi Nambu Police Agency said it received a complaint on the allegations and started to look into them.
Last month, the land ministry selected a vast area spanning 12.71 million square meters in Gwangmyeong and Siheung as the site for approximately 70,000 new homes in order to meet housing demand in the capital area and cool down runaway housing prices.
The two satellite cities are located about 12 kilometers southeast of Yeouido, a major business district in southwestern Seoul.
According to the two groups' allegations, the LH employees who are working in the capital area and their family members bought plots of farmland totaling 23,028 square meters for about 10 billion won (US$8.88 million) from April 2018 to June 2020, possibly using internal, classified information.
Of the money, around 5.8 billion won is believed to be loans from a particular financial institution, the groups said.
They also alleged that those employees worked on the land compensation team and must have knowledge of how to get heavily compensated when the government seeks to acquire land to build apartments there.
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