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Minister-nominee rejects allegations

Choi Joong-kyung pledges to stabilize commodity prices, create jobs


While defending himself against ethical suspicions at a parliamentary hearing Tuesday, President Lee Myung-bak’s economy minister-nominee pledged to focus on stabilizing commodity prices and creating more jobs once parliament approves his appointment.

Choi Joong-kyung, who formerly served as senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, was grilled mainly over suspicions that his family was involved in speculative real estate investment and also evaded taxes on real estate rental income.

The confirmation of Choi as minister of knowledge economy and Choung Byoung-gug as the minister of culture has drawn keen attention following the recent resignation of President Lee’s designate for top state auditor.

Chung Tong-ki was forced to give up his candidacy over accusations of unjust money-making, allegedly using his former status as a senior prosecutor and close ties with the president. The matter dealt a blow to the Lee administration, which has two years left in office.

“The law does not stipulate that the landowner must cultivate the land himself,” Choi told Tuesday’s parliamentary confirmation hearing, refuting an opposition lawmaker’s suspicion about his 1988 purchase of farmland in the central Daejeon region. 
Knowledge economy minister-nominee Choi Joong-kyung answers lawmakers’ questions at a parliamentary confirmation hearing Tuesday. (Yang Dong-chul/The Korea Herald)
Knowledge economy minister-nominee Choi Joong-kyung answers lawmakers’ questions at a parliamentary confirmation hearing Tuesday. (Yang Dong-chul/The Korea Herald)

Rep. Cho Jeong-sik of the main opposition Democratic Party suspected the minister-nominee of buying the land for speculative investment purposes, citing the fact that none of his family members lived close to or had taken part in cultivating the land.

The land was later sold for state development, making Choi tens of millions of won in profit.

While admitting he had hired another person to farm, the minister-nominee said, “Under the 1996 farmland laws, cultivation by proxy is not illegal.

“I do not see what the problem is,” he said.

Also denying speculations about land his wife and in-laws purchased together in three other regions, Choi said he “had not known anything.”

“Since I began to work for the government, I left household finances fully upon the decision of my wife,” he said.

Before taking questions from lawmakers, the minister-nominee said he will “make the utmost effort” to overcome high fuel costs and escalating commodity prices.

“I will create a country where the youth no longer have to worry about getting jobs,” he added.

Despite the lingering suspicions that Choi failed to resolve Tuesday, he is likely to be approved as the new economy minister, especially as people consider speculative investment in real estate one of the easiest ways to make money and are thus somewhat generous on the issue.

The National Assembly committees will hold an all-member meeting Wednesday to vote on whether to approve of Choi and Choung.

Choi, 54, is considered a veteran finance official with extensive expertise.

He became vice finance minister in March 2008 but resigned four months later, taking responsibility for currency policy failures.

Choi then served as Seoul’s ambassador to the Philippines until early 2010. He also gained expertise in international finance by working at the World Bank between 2005 and 2008.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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