(ATTN: UPDATES with apology of land minister in paras 13-16; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chi-dong and Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in stressed the need Tuesday for the government to go ahead with plans to expand the housing supply in spite of alleged speculative land purchases by employees of the state housing corporation, Cheong Wa Dae said.
Moon called for a two-track approach of looking thoroughly into relevant suspicions and pushing speedily for public-led construction of apartments aimed at stabilizing the housing market, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok.
"(Public) trust in the government's housing supply measures should not be shaken," the president was quoted as saying during a meeting with his officials.
His message came amid lingering doubts about the future of the government's ambitious project, announced on Feb. 4, to provide a total of more than 830,000 additional residential units mainly in Seoul and nearby capital areas.
The Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) is supposed to play a leading role in the program to take several years. Some of its officials, however, were found to have bought a huge swathe of farmland in Gwangmyeong and Siheung in Gyeonggi Province before the land ministry's recent announcement of a scheme to build tens of thousands of apartments there.
"There should be no disruption to the implementation of the Feb. 4 real estate measure," Moon added. "Supply-related measures should be implemented more speedily."
He earlier ordered a broader probe into suspicious land transactions not just in the Gwangmyeong-Siheung zone but also in five other zones in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, where large residential towns will be built.
Cheong Wa Dae is also carrying out an internal audit at Moon's instruction to find out whether any presidential secretaries or those with higher ranks and their families are involved in the scandal.
It plans to announce the outcome of the audit within this week, a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters, requesting anonymity. It will be followed by a separate announcement on the results of a follow-up probe on lower-ranking officials and their families, he added.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, meanwhile, offered a public apology over the scandal.
He apologized to the people "who must have felt disappointed and even betrayed by the shocking news," chairing a weekly Cabinet meeting at the government office complex in Sejong, 120 kilometers south of Seoul.
In a bid to stave off such illicit land speculation, Chung said the government will also push for systemic measures like restricting land transactions and confiscating unfair profits.
Separately, Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum, who served as LH chief from 2019-2020, also apologized to the public for the scandal.
"I am feeling very miserable as the minister in charge of the related issues as well as a former head of LH," Byeon told lawmakers during a parliamentary committee session. "I feel a strong sense of responsibility for the unfortunate incident and give my sincere apology to the people."
He pledged to mobilize all possible means to confiscate any unjust profits that were gleaned by LH employees accused of land speculation.
On Wednesday, the prime minister is scheduled to convene a meeting of top officials of the nation's law enforcement authorities including the justice ministry, the state prosecution service and the police.
Police have already raided the headquarters of the LH in order to seize material on the transactions based allegedly on insider information.
The Gyeonggi Nambu Police Agency sent investigators to the facilities in Jinju, 434 kilometers southeast of Seoul, LH offices in Gwacheon and Incheon, both located near Seoul, and the homes of the 13 LH officials suspected of involvement in the case.
The officials allegedly used classified information to buy about 10 billion won (US$8.88 million) worth of land in Gwangmyeong and Siheung between April 2018 and June 2020. The government made public a plan last month to construct a residential new town there.
An interagency team, led by the Prime Minister's Office, has been carrying out its own investigation into alleged irregularities. It involves the land ministry and local governments as well.
Its preliminary investigation will cover a total of 23,000 officials, including around 9,900 LH employees and 4,500 land ministry employees.
The task force will also look into all transactions since December 2013, when former President Park Geun-hye was in office.
"We plan to use the raid to secure evidential material and conduct a swift and strict investigation in accordance with the law and principles," a police official said.
The 13 LH officials are currently under police investigation on corruption charges and have been banned from leaving the country.
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