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French Embassy's request for tax exemption part of 'administrative inquiry': top envoy

The French Embassy asked for an exemption from property taxes from the South Korean government, but it was part of an "administrative inquiry," its top envoy said Friday.

Ambassador Philippe Lefort to Seoul made the remark in response to a question about recent local media reports that the embassy had been refusing to pay the property taxes levied on about a dozen residences it owns for its staff in southern Seoul, saying there is no such tax system in its home country.

"This is strictly part of a process for an administrative inquiry, and it's not a dispute or conflict between the two countries," he said through an interpreter during a meeting with press in Seoul.

The ambassador said he was "surprised" to see that the matter drew so much attention from local media.

"Tax reduction or exemption are given to all diplomatic missions around the world. And based on the reciprocity, we have asked South Korea (for the exemption) since we don't have that (kind of tax) in France," he said.

The French Embassy is arguing that all diplomatic missions and their official residences should be exempt from the hosting country's tax system under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Seoul says that the houses are not subject to such exemption as the embassy owns them as private properties.

South Korea levies an additional real estate tax on multiple homeowners as part of an effort to curb soaring housing prices. The tax rate has almost doubled this year under the government's strong drive to cool the housing market.

The French mission made a similar request for property tax exemption in 2007. The finance ministry, in charge of related affairs, declined the request.

A foreign ministry official said consultations are under way over the latest complaint and declined to comment further, citing that the matter is still under discussion. (Yonhap)