Choi endures grilling on real estate, competence

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Choi endures grilling on real estate, competence


Choi Joong-kyung

Knowledge Economy Minister-nominee Choi Joong-kyung was questioned on his ethics and professional competence at a confirmation hearing yesterday, and was grilled extensively on his wife’s real estate investments.

Prior to the hearing in the National Assembly’s Knowledge Economy Committee, Democratic Party floor leader Park Jie-won vowed to get to the bottom of allegations surrounding Choi’s family assets. “There are many doubts about his wealth,” Park said. “The investments were very complex, as if done by a professional real estate speculator.”

Park also questioned Choi’s qualifications to oversee the country’s industrial policy, calling him a “failed financial policy maker.”

Choi, former vice finance minister and senior secretary to the president for economic affairs, was nominated by President Lee Myung-bak to the knowledge economy post on Dec. 31. Choi’s predecessor, Lee Jae-hoon, withdrew his nomination in August after his wife was accused in a confirmation hearing of having purchased a house in one of Seoul’s poorest neighborhoods based on insider information about the city’s urban redevelopment plans.

In the hearing, the Democrats said Choi had evaded inheritance taxes when his grandfather registered land in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, under his name. Choi said the price was so low at the time of registration that it was not subject to inheritance taxes.

Choi was also questioned about his wife’s real estate deals. The Democrats claimed that lucrative investments were made based on Choi’s insider knowledge about development projects as a senior public servant.

In 1988, Choi’s wife and father-in-law purchased farmland inside a greenbelt zone in Daejeon. The land was developed into a road in July 2010, and the family received compensation that was 15 times the amount they had paid, the Democrats said. They also said Choi’s family broke the law by buying agricultural land even though they weren’t farmers.

Choi said the land was purchased for the retirement of his parents-in-law, denying the accusation of real estate speculation. He also said the purchaser did not have to farm the land under the law governing agricultural land, which was revised in 1996.

The Democrats also said Choi’s wife and sister-in-law purchased forestland in Cheongwon, North Chungcheong, in 1988, but the zoning was changed months later to allow construction of industrial facilities, boosting the value of the land.

Choi also denied giving away any inside information, saying the land was intended for a family graveyard.

He also said he was not involved in either deals, adding that he only learned about the investments in 1994 when he declared his assets as a senior public servant. At the time of the investments, he said, he was only a rank-and-file civil servant working until midnight every night, with no time to attend to family affairs.

Choi was also criticized for evading taxes when his wife filed an inaccurate registration of an office-apartment unit that understated its size. While saying that the unit was not a taxable property in 1994, Choi apologized and said he and his wife deeply regretted their “mistake.”

The Democrats also questioned Choi’s professional qualification to serve as knowledge economy minister and criticized his earlier job performances.

“The policy of an artificially weak Korean won and extraordinarily low interest rate was planned by you,” Representative Kim Jin-pyo of the DP said. “It only benefited the conglomerates’ exports, while putting small companies in pain and prompting hardships on people’s livelihoods.”

The Democrats also said Choi is a financial policy specialist and lacked expertise to guide the country’s industrial, commerce and energy sectors.

At the hearing, Choi vowed to do his best to facilitate harmony between small and big companies. “I will try to improve working conditions and do my best to stabilize prices,” he said.

Grand National Party representatives defended Choi’s abilities.

The Knowledge Economy Committee will vote today to decide Choi’s fate. A vote by another committee will also take place tomorrow to decide the fate of Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister-nominee Choung Byoung-gug.

By Ser Myo-ja []

Related Korean Article [중앙일보]

노영민 “부인이 땅 사면 값 뛰어 … 정말 전문가”
최중경 “투기목적 아니다, 당시 나는 몰랐다”

“국가 정책엔 마이너스(-)의 손인데 재테크엔 탁월하다.”(조경태 의원)

“부동산투기, 탈루, 위장전입, 병역기피 등 이명박 정부의 각료들은 4대 필수과목을 훈장처럼 달고 있다. 후보자도 투기·탈루를 이수했다.”(노영민 의원)

민주당 의원들은 18일 청문회가 시작되자마자 최중경 지식경제부 장관 후보자를 거칠게 몰아세웠다. 쟁점은 주로 부동산에서 나왔다. 1988년 최 후보자의 장인·장모가 부인과 함께 매입한 충북 청원군 임야와 대전 유성구 밭이 그랬다. 청원군 임야는 4900만원에 샀는데 국토이용계획이 바뀌면서 92년 2억 8700만원의 보상을 받았다. 유성구 밭도 그린벨트가 해제되면서 90년 1㎡당 4만1000원이던 것이 지난해 무려 61만원의 보상을 받았다.

노영민 의원은 “최 후보자의 배우자가 취득한 땅만 유독 오른다. 정말 전문가”라고 주장했다. 자유선진당 김낙성 의원은 “최 후보자가 개발 정보를 입수한 게 아니냐”고 물었다.

최 후보자는 “전원주택과 선산 조성이 목적이었다. 투기가 아니었다. 당시 나는 부동산을 산 사실도 몰랐다”고 반박했다.
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