[FORUM]Officials must choose wiselyA former Minister of Finance and Economy has a new habit of breathing deeply before entering a college lecture hall, because he doesn’t know what kind of questions will be thrown his way, causing him to lose his composure. It happens occasionally. Recently he was asked why high-ranking government officials own so much real estate, and how they got to accumulate their wealth. With all eyes on him, he couldn’t come down from the platform without giving a serious answer. The eyes of the students felt heavy on him.
So he answered that during the industrial development era some government officials were suspected of real estate speculation, and that some high-ranking officials were criticized for that reason. He obscurely acknowledged the truth and talked in a vague way to manage his way out of the awkward situation. There was much more he could say, but he kept his mouth closed. He was worried that rumors would follow if he said anything more.
There is no way of knowing how far the special investigation into real estate speculation by government officials will go. Every year the same problem comes up. Even nowadays, if documents on land transactions in an area scheduled to be developed shortly are searched, a list of government officials will undoubtedly be revealed. Some use their own names but many make deals in the names of their relatives. The wrongful cycle of real estate speculation by government officials continues no matter how much regulation there is.
There was a highly respected high-ranking government official when former President Chun Doo Hwan was in power. Because he was highly regarded by foreign investors, his presence in the military government helped to gain international confidence in the government. In addition to that he led a frugal life. After he passed away in a tragic incident in Burma, a movement to help his remaining family members was launched. While examining the properties he left behind, however, it was found he had some previously unknown real estate in his name.
The land was small in size, but the property was an unexpected asset. Back then, even some journalists were suspected of enjoying the right to buy an apartment without relying on the lottery, or of using information on land development they learned during their news coverage for personal use, and became targets of criticism. This was followed by suspicion of land speculation by businessmen surrounding their businesses’ factory construction.
The main problem with such real estate speculation lies in the fact that people make use of information gained while performing their official duties. From high-ranking officials who plan development projects to low-ranking civil servants at local autonomous bodies, from businessmen at the top of corporations to those in charge of construction, people do not keep money-making information in their pockets. How long they can keep such information secret is a matter of their sense of responsibility and morality. Until now they have been continuously criticized for using the secret information on construction plans to accumulate personal wealth. The immoral practices of civil servants at local governments surrounding development and construction projects grow larger, but it seems there is no effective counter measure to check them. There is a system of rewarding people who report such wrongdoings, but such a system is unlikely to have much effect on civil organizations.
Civil servants of the central government or local autonomous bodies and an endless list of public enterprises get inspections and checks when they deal with classified information. There are even backup measures to check the security system. Yet information that can lead to suspicious real estate speculation somehow leaks out. Actually, it is not possible to keep money-making information strictly under control. What matters is the qualification of government officials. The government appears to be holding a list of high-ranking officials who are suspected of real estate speculation and is watching their every move. There are also rumors that detailed investigations are underway. The fact that the number of account traces of government organizations such as the National Tax Service and the Public Prosecutors’ Office is increasing supports this rumor.
The sense of responsibility and credibility of the present government under President Roh Moo-hyun, which promised to root-out unlawful real estate speculation no matter what, depends on how well key members of the government manage information they acquire while performing their official duties. They have to be clean enough to be able to show that their fortune, which will be revealed at some point even if it is after their retirement, is not related in any way to information gained on the job.
However, watching many government officials talk their way out of criticism with various excuses makes this all meaningless. The only way to overcome the problem is not to covet anything other than the assets accumulated by one’s own paycheck and savings. People have to be satisfied with just that. This is a choice those in power have to make.
* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Chul-joo