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[Editorial] Disingenuous behavior

Top officials hold on to Gangnam, telling people to the contrary

President Moon Jae-in’s Chief of Staff Noh Young-min on Thursday strongly urged secretaries and chief secretaries who own two or more houses to dispose of them this month, except for houses where they actually live or will live.

In December, Noh made similar recommendations and six months passed. But eight of them were found to possess more than one house in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province as of late last month, according to Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice.

The value of their houses has soared by an average of 730 million won ($609,000) since May 2017 when the Moon administration assumed office.

Eighteen of 64 Cheong Wa Dae officials who reported their housing ownership from March to June were found to possess two or more houses across the country.

Moon’s chief secretary for civil affairs and spokesperson, both owners of two houses, saw their respective housing value jump by 1.1 billion won. The total value of the two houses possessed by the public information secretary surged as much as 1.6 billion won.

It would not be easy for ordinary people to achieve such high investment returns.

The Moon administration tended to stigmatize those who own multiple homes as speculators and has put pressure on them to dispose of the homes that they do not actually live in. However, Cheong Wa Dae officials with more than one house saw the values of their homes climb by running counter to the policy. Those who followed the government policy probably feel like they were fooled.

In January, Noh urged Cheong Wa Dae secretaries and chief secretaries to set an example, mentioning “noblesse oblige.” But it was all talk.

Noh, who lives in the official residence, has not disposed of either of his two houses, one of which is in Banpo, southern Seoul and the other in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.

On Thursday, when Moon instructed Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee to raise the burden of possessing more than one house, Noh said that he will put his Banpo apartment up for sale.

But 50 minutes later he changed his words, saying that he decided to dispose of the apartment in Cheongju, instead of the home in Banpo.

He chose the expensive and profitable house and discarded the less expensive and less profitable one.

He said that the reason he changed his mind was that his unmarried son currently lives in the Banpo apartment. This excuse is not very convincing.

Rather, his choice looks close to an expression of intention to keep his house in the expensive Gangnam area by any means, even though he will have to dispose of his house in Cheongju, a constituency that elected him as a lawmaker three times.

If he sells the Cheongju apartment first, he will reportedly save hundreds of million won in transfer income tax.

In the wake of Noh’s avowal to sell his Cheongju apartment, real estate held by North Chungcheong Gov. Lee Si-jong became the topic of conversation again. He sold an apartment in Cheongju last year, but possesses an apartment in Songpa, regarded as part of the Gangnam area. It is questionable if it is reasonable for a governor to sell an apartment located in his or her province while keeping an apartment in Seoul.

Not only Cheong Wa Dae staff, but also a significant number of high-ranking government officials have more than one house. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and SMEs and Startups Minister Park Young-sun each possess three houses. Economy and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, Science and ICT Miniser Choi Ki-young, Interior and Safety Minister Chin Young, and Financial Services Commission Chairman Eun Sung-soo are among those who own two houses.

In August 2017, Land Minister Kim urged those who owned multiple homes to sell their properties where they do not reside or plan to reside. She was an owner of two houses in Gyeonggi Province -- an apartment in Ilsan and a house in Yeoncheon, close to North Korea, until she sold the Yeoncheon house to her younger brother in January 2018.

The Moon administration has vowed to defeat real estate speculators, particularly those in Gangnam. Under the surface, high-ranking officials believe real estate prices will keep rising regardless, but tell the people to the contrary.

Legally speaking, nothing is wrong with their possession and private choice of properties. But as long as they behave disingenuously, real estate measures will hardly work.
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