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[Editorial] Matter of ethics

Urban regeneration scandal reawakens attention to conflict of interest

The state prosecution’s indictment this week of Rep. Sohn Hye-won for corruption charges should renew the call to legislate a tough law to punish public officials involved in conflicts of interest.

The key element of the indictment is that Sohn is suspected of using information about an urban regeneration plan she obtained as an elected public official for her personal gain. This is a typical case of conflict of interest, but in the absence of a relevant law, the prosecution indicted her for violating the anti-corruption law and the law banning the use of borrowed names in real estate transactions.

Prosecutors who had probed the case for the past five months said that Sohn, then a member of the ruling Democratic Party, allegedly obtained restricted information about a plan to regenerate an old town in the southwestern city of Mokpo in 2017.

She got the information from both the Mokpo Municipal Government and the Ministry of Land and Transportation within an interval of four months. Under the plan, an area of the port city that had been a regional hub during the Japanese colonial rule was designated as an urban regeneration zone.

It was around the time Sohn allegedly drew people close to her to purchase land and properties in the area. Those who bought 26 plots and 21 buildings worth about 1.4 billion won ($1.18 million) included her relatives and a cultural foundation headed by her husband.

Prosecutors said a parliamentary aide to Sohn and a Mokpo resident also took advantage of the information to buy properties in the area. The two were also indicted on similar charges.

Of the properties, prosecutors said, Sohn is suspected of having bought three plots and two buildings worth 72 million won under the name of her nephew. One of the two buildings is being run as a guesthouse.

Parliamentary records show that Sohn, a member of the National Assembly Culture and Tourism Committee, urged the central and local governments to initiate an urban redevelopment project in the Mokpo old town. She mentioned the project in her parliamentary committee speeches several times.

It is not a coincidence that the project secured a 110 billion won budget, including 50 billion from the Cultural Heritage Administration, which is supervised by the Culture and Tourism Committee.

Sohn insisted that she did not buy any property in the area. But prosecutors charged in the indictment that she signed the purchase contract herself for some of the properties and paid the related taxes as well.

Sohn maintained her position even after the prosecution indicted her. She specifically said that if any of her properties are under other names, she would donate everything and give up her parliamentary seat. This argument, already discredited by the prosecution, indicates that Sohn is still mistaken about what her problem is.

Violating the law prohibiting property transactions under the names of other people itself is a serious offence, but Sohn is apparently avoiding a broader, graver issue in her case -- conflict of interest.

Again, the key suspicion here is that an elected official obtained information not accessible to the public and used it to induce others close to her to make property investments.

On the occasion of Sohn’s indictment, the main opposition party is mounting a political offensive, including a call for a special parliamentary investigation. The call is belated because the case has already been put to trial, and all should wait for the court’s judgement.

What the opposition – and the political community as a whole -- should realize through the Sohn case is that we need a real, tough law on conflict of interest.

One must be reminded that a clause on conflict of interest was dropped from the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act when the parliament legislated it in 2016. Lawmakers dropped the clause from what is also known as the Kim Young-ran Law named after a former Supreme Court justice who proposed the landmark anti-corruption legislation.