Chinese cult owns large portion of land in North Chungcheong

Korea JoongAng Daily/September 7, 2021

By Choi Jong-Kwon, and Lee Jian

A two-story iron warehouse in Boeun County, North Chungcheong, has been out of business for years, but articles of freshly washed clothing pegged on the clotheslines to dry can be found on the rooftop.

"The building used to be a storage unit for a factory, but a couple years ago someone purchased it," said one resident in Boeun County. "I don't know who lives there, and I don't know what they are doing [in an empty factory]."

According to Boeun County Office, the inhabitants are members of Chinese religious cults.

Boeun County Office calculated that 186 pieces of land were sold to Chinese people in Korea who are members of a newly emerging religious cult from 2018 to July 2021.

"Believers of these cults attend churches with names that can be translated to 'Almighty Church of God' or 'Almighty Church,' and they have established agricultural companies that purchase buildings and farmland in Boeun County," a Boeun County official said.

A total land area of 646,000 square meters (158.3 acres), which included 49 fields, 103 rice paddies and 34 other plots of lands, were sold to foreigners from 2018 to July 2021, in the county according to Boeun County Office.

Within that period, 72 percent, or 446,000 square meters, of the land area was purchased by Chinese, followed by 125,000 square meters purchased by Americans and 32,000 square meters by Europeans.

Foreign companies owned the most land area, and of them, Chinese companies accounted for the majority.

Real estate documents showed that the owner of a youth hostel in the county is a member of a cult under "Almighty Church."

The hostel, which is now a prayer center for the Chinese religious cult, was purchased for 1 billion won ($847,000).

The agricultural companies owned by "Almighty Church" also bought a 20,000-square-meter plot of land for 2.5 billion won. The purchasing prices are reported to be 20 to 40 percent more expensive than the actual market price.

"Many owners of Chinese companies [in Boeun County] have been identified as members of Chinese cults who have been naturalized as Korean citizens," said Lee Jeong-hyeok, an official in charge of land data in Boeun County.

"They buy relatively cheap, arable lands in Boeun County and make a living through farming. Land ownership can be traced back to companies and individual members themselves."

A Boeun County official said that land purchases by foreigners may occur more often as Boeun County's population ages.

With 35.7 percent of the county's population over the age of 65, there are less young people available to manage the farmland.

The Boeun County official also said that large amounts of foreign-owned lands may give rise to bigger problems in the future.

"Foreigners can participate in more illegal activities like money laundering, and if many of them simultaneously take part in such schemes, it can really disturb our real estate market," the official said.

However, the laws that are in place today do not regulate land purchases by foreigners.

The Boeun County Office has proposed various measures to regulate land purchases by foreigners, including enacting laws on restricting foreign land ownership and designating a limited number of zones that are available for sale to foreigners.

Until appropriate policies are implemented, the military, along with the county's residents, will monitor the status of foreign land transactions.

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