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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 19)

Editorials from Korean dailies 06:55 September 19, 2023

Appalling data manipulation
Thorough probes needed to reveal truth

The previous Moon Jae-in administration has taken flak for allegedly manipulating economic data to conceal policy failures. The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) said Friday that key policymakers of the Moon government had engaged in distorting various statistics on home prices, income & distribution and employment.

The BAI requested prosecutors to launch investigations into 22 figures, including four policy chiefs of the previous presidential office. They are Jang Ha-sung, Kim Su-hyun, Kim Sang-jo and Lee Ho-seung ― and Land Minister Kim Hyun-mi. The BAI claimed that the presidential office pressured the land ministry, Statistics Korea and the Korea Real Estate Board (REB) to manipulate relevant data in favor of the Moon administration.

This was all done to make it look as if the government's policies to tame soaring apartment prices were successful. The presidential office and the ministry ordered the REB to "cook" apartment price data announced every week at least 94 times from 2017 to 2021, the BAI noted. They also exerted undue pressure on the statistical agency to distort data pertinent to income, distribution and hiring, the audit agency said. The Moon administration was desperate to contain surging real estate prices, with the ministry implementing a package of measures such as imposing high taxes on those owning more than one home, but to no avail.

For starters, the REB was about to report that Seoul apartment prices were expected to increase 0.67 percent before releasing the numbers to the press. This prompted the presidential office to instruct the agency to "modify" the figure. In the face of such pressure, the REB lowered the estimate by 0.22 percentage point to 0.45 percent. In the process, it was discovered that the ministry had threatened to cut the budget for the REB, an affiliate of the ministry, unless the agency accepted its demand.

Given this, the public distrust toward the REB's data continued to grow as its price estimates were far lower than those released by private organizations. For instance, Kookmin Bank released data showing housing prices soared by up to 100 percent during the four-year period of the Moon administration. In contrast, Kim, the land minister, asserted that the price increased only 14 percent during the same period based on the REB's data. Moon himself gave some seemingly nonsensical remarks that housing prices were beginning to stabilize. All this shows that Moon and his policymakers made false arguments based on manipulated data.

The Moon government has also faced criticism for having allegedly tampered with statistics related to income-led growth. For one thing, the Moon administration falsely reported that household income rose by 1 percent in June, 2017, although it actually fell 0.6 percent, thereby showing that its much-touted policies were effective.

The same year, the income distribution disparity widened further despite the administration's decision to drastically increase the minimum wage. Against this backdrop, the presidential office instructed the Korea Labor Institute to compile a report that showed that incomes rose in all classes, except for the bottom 10 percent of the wage bracket. Based on this, Moon made a seemingly nonsensical remark that the "positive impact of the minimum wage reached 90 percent."

It remains to be seen whether the BAI's claims will be looked at as feasible for future investigations. Yet, statistics are the basis for policies and their distortion constitutes a grave crime: the manipulation of state affairs. Moon and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea are strongly refuting the BAI's claims, dubbing them as political maneuvering.

However, it is totally improper for the DPK to try to avoid the prosecution's investigations into the alleged bungling of policy during the previous administration. It is time to conduct thorough investigations to get to the bottom of the alleged data manipulation and take strict punitive measures against those who are responsible. That is the best way to prevent a possible recurrence of such unprecedented distortions of economic data from disturbing the administration of state affairs.

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