Audit agency widening probe into suspected rigging of economic data during Moon gov’t

SEOUL– The state audit agency is said to be accelerating its inspection into suspected rigging of key economic data during the preceding Moon Jae-in government after securing some circumstantial evidence in its recent search of relevant government offices, informed officials said Wednesday.

The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) has been probing Statistics Korea and other government offices since late September over allegations that the Moon administration manipulated official data on income, employment and house prices to support its economic and real estate policies.

The BAI recently conducted digital forensics on computers at Statistics Korea, the land ministry and the Korea Real Estate Board (REB) and reportedly obtained circumstantial evidence indicating that key economic indicators were intentionally distorted to make Moon’s signature policies, such as income-led growth and the war on real estate speculation, look successful.
The audit agency is reportedly considering questioning former presidential aides to Moon, suspecting that Cheong Wa Dae, the former presidential office, may have applied undue pressure on statistics-related officials to doctor economic data.

It is also looking into whether Cheong Wa Dae asked government agencies to make prior reports or revisions before key statistics were compiled and announced.

In particular, the REB, an affiliate of the land ministry, is suspected of intentionally skewing samples and using manipulated survey data in publishing real estate price trend reports, according to the informed officials.

Indeed, Kim Hyun-mi, the then land minister, told parliament in 2020 that housing prices rose by merely 11 percent during the Moon administration judging from REB data.

At that time, however, the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, a leading progressive civic group, insisted that the median apartment price in Seoul soared as much as 52 percent in the first three years of the Moon presidency.

Decreased income for the low-income households was another controversial issue in light of Moon’s income-led growth policy.

Statistics Korea’s household income trend survey for the first quarter of 2018 showed that income gap widened by the largest margin since 2013, as the monthly average income of the bottom 20 percent bracket dropped 8 percent on-year and the total distribution ratio for disposable income, a key barometer of earnings equality, reached 5.95, the worst record since 2003.

The survey report triggered criticism that the income of the poor had further decreased and the distribution gap had widened despite Moon’s income-led growth initiative.

But Moon dismissed the survey report, saying that a sharp hike in the minimum wage and the income-led growth policy had a 90 percent positive effect.

Moon reportedly consulted a report from Kang Shin-wook, a researcher of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, in his rebuttal of the government report and Kang was later appointed to replace Hwang Soo-kyung as chief of Statistics Korea.

Hwang, who resigned only after 13 months in office, said in her farewell speech that accurate and reliable statistics should be created for objective assessment of policies, in an apparently indirect criticism of Cheong Wa Dae’s intervention in statistical affairs.

Following Kang’s inauguration, Statistics Korea changed its statistical survey method and produced improved data on income distribution.

According to the informed officials, the BAI has confirmed through interviews with Statistics Korea employees that Cheong Wa Dae officials requested that certain information be included or omitted in the agency’s household trend surveys or press releases.

The BAI, which has already questioned Hwang and Kang, is reportedly considering summoning Hong Jang-pyo, who served as senior secretary for economic policy from 2017-18, to determine whether the presidential office was involved in the alleged data rigging.

Some watchers speculate that Hwang Deok-soon, former senior presidential secretary for job creation, and Kim Soo-hyun, former presidential chief of staff for policy, could be summoned, though the BAI has denied such speculation.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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