Area II cuts approved broker list by 60 percent
SEOUL — A decision to cut the list of Area II-approved real estate brokers from more than 60 down to 21 has some who’ve passed muster applauding a move that they say will remove unethical practices.
Meanwhile, some newly unapproved brokers say that fraud may have occurred in a few cases, but add that the March 2 list is more about one housing employee’s revenge than fair practice.
Some brokers falsified property ownership details and lied about square footage, Area II spokesman David McNally wrote in an e-mail reply to a Stars and Stripes query.
“There have also been some allegations of bribery and kickbacks,” McNally said. “In the past six months, the Housing Division has had to reply to six Criminal Investigation Division investigations involving Realtors practicing illegal activities.”
Housing officials might add some of the real estate agents back to the list next month, McNally said.
The new conditions for being approved to work with U.S. Forces Korea personnel require brokers to speak English, hold an official South Korean real estate certification, sign nondiscrimination and ethical practice declarations and complete additional paperwork.
Some of the companies that were cut from the list used brokers who were uncertified, but worked alongside brokers who had passed the certification tests. It is relatively common practice in South Korea for the uncertified broker to work on a contract and then bring in the certified broker to seal the deal, they say.
This practice is legal, said Kim Hyun-jung of the Land Register Division of Yongsan District Office. But it doesn’t meet Area II’s criteria, and that is probably why one broker whose firm works mostly with servicemembers says it is no longer on the list.
“They’ve basically said, ‘OK, your business is finished,’” said the broker, who, like most of those who were cut, requested anonymity because they fear retribution when they’re trying to get back on the approved list.
The broker and others sent an e-mail to the Area II housing office asking why they were no longer approved and received no response, the broker said.
“I have no any clue at all why we were not approved,” said another broker, Unity Realty’s Jina Park, a manager with 12 years of experience. “Unity is fully devoted to catering only to USFK customers.”
Some brokers were cut because they couldn’t speak English or weren’t following Area II rules — and that is justified, Park said.
However, she claimed that isn’t the case with her company and some of the others.
Some say they believe that the new list of pared-down brokers isn’t about higher standards, but rather favoritism by a longtime housing official.
Kim Dong-sik has worked for USFK for more than 25 years and once served as a housing manager. He still works for the Area II Housing Office, though not as the office’s head.
From 2001 to 2003, the Army investigated Kim three times on allegations of bribery, conflict of interest and intimidation. Although investigators told Stripes they had no doubt he was guilty, no charges were ever filed.
In November 2003, Kim received a letter from Lt. Col. Steven Roemhildt of the Directorate of Public Works that stated: “I have lost confidence in you and no longer trust you to faithfully execute the responsibilities of your position.”
However, Kim had not yet received a final review and apparently was retained.
In 2003, Kim said he was the victim of overzealous investigators and that he fought hard to keep real estate brokers and landlords from ripping off the base.
He also cited a 2002 award — while he was under investigation — “for exceptional performance of duty” that he received from Area II officials.
On Friday, Kim declined to comment and directed all queries to public affairs officials.
Goo Yoon-young of the Area II-approved Acres and Dollars Realty says Kim is an innocent man. She also praised the military for setting the new standards and eliminating those “who have contributed to distorting real estate markets and doing harm to USFK customers and licensed realtors.”
Non-approved brokers still can do business with U.S. personnel, but there is a much larger paperwork burden for landlords. Consequently, landlords are less likely to work with them, unapproved brokers say.
Nevertheless, one de-listed broker complied with the added paperwork, only to lose the deal when the contract came back with a new two-paragraph stamp saying that the housing office has “limited ability to assist” personnel who sign with unapproved brokers.
“Customers, when they see that, they get really knocked out,” the broker said.
The broker said he doesn’t know a single servicemember who signed the deal after reading the warning stamp.