No greed guardrails
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Farmland is the new target of speculators. Rich people have amassed it easily. Some farmland is jointly owned by several people. The owners include not just employees of the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) but also spouses of acquaintances of President Moon Jae-in and aides of government ministers and lawmakers. These revelations have shocked the general public, or people without access to power, inside information and shady ways to increase your wealth. Farmers groan about a shortage of land because speculators have pushed up prices.
In an age when ethics used to restrain greed have crumbled, beggar-thy-neighbor practices thrive. A communal ethos has become extinct. This kind of community is headed for doom.
Land scandals have a long history in this nation. Land ownership was a fad among nobles in the 14th century in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Noble families fought over a piece of land. Farmers turned into robbers and looters to survive. Jeong Do-jeon, a prominent scholar of the time, lamented that the poor did not have space to make a hole in the ground. A record said that nearly half the population was wiped out of the family register. Politicians described the times as a period of “extreme anomie.”
The Goryeo Dynasty could not last. Land reform was the first task of the new political force under General Yi Seong-gye upon the founding of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It did away with multiple land ownership to justify the revolution. Resistance from the nobility was strong. Jeong, who designed the foundation of Joseon, wrote that the noble families resented and interfered with the reforms.
Land came to define the fate of a kingdom. The Goryeo Dynasty, which fell on land abuse, justified its downing of the longest kingdom of Silla with a promise to “correct the exploitive estate system.” The Goryeo court recorded that robbers were rampant from imbalances in land and heavy taxes. The first king of Goryeo exempted taxes for farmers for three years. A nation’s fate hinged on public sentiment in the old days, too.
The instabilities stemming from the chaotic land system of the ancient days have loomed over the present. The Moon administration bombarded the property-rich with multiple taxes to stamp out wealth-building through real estate profiteering. But LH employees used inside information to increase their wealth. The elite discovered crony capitalism. A state and villains have become one.
President Moon Jae-in vowed to end bad practices related to real estate during his term. Kim Hun-dong, head of the real estate construction reform campaign headquarters at the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, asked how the president could root out “past evils” when he also is one of them.
Moon came under fire for his post-retirement retreat. He bought masses of land in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang to live on after he steps down. As much of the land was for farming purpose, he bought the land by reporting his “experience of 11 years of farming.” Nine months after the purchase, he changed the purpose of the farmland to general purpose. His chief of staff Noh Young-min denied any false registration. The president said that his family only can live there without being able to sell it because of the space for the secret service. His intention may have been innocent. But he cannot avoid the criticism of speculation for buying a farmland at a cheap price and changing the land purpose to housing for higher value later.
Vietnam’s founder and first president Ho Chi Minh chose to life in a house on stilts at the back of Presidential Palace that used to be the residence of the French governor. He said he was more comfortable with a smaller home. In a trip to Vietnam, Moon said corruption could not exist if leaders learned from Ho Chi Minh. But Moon did not follow his own advice. He said a large space was needed for security reasons. But he would not have to worry about security if he had the respect of the people.
Public sentiment is souring fast as in the late period of corrupt monarchies. A combined survey of pollsters in Korea showed that 73 percent of the people would not trust the results of investigations by the government into land speculation. As much as 82 percent believed the LH scandal would affect the upcoming mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. People are waiting to make their judgment through votes. Former ruling party chairman Lee Hae-chan said that the upper stream of power has become clean, but poor practices still exist downstream. “To fix the problem, we need another presidential victory,” he claimed.
Speculation in farmland violates our Constitution, which stipulates a farm should be owned by a farmer. Article 121 says the state must protect the principle of restricting agricultural land to farming purposes and banning lease of lands for other purposes. Article 6 of the Agricultural Land Act also specified that farmland cannot be owned by others than farmers or would-be farmers for agricultural management. There is no future for a government that makes a fool of the people and the law.