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Company Whistleblower Behind Latest Recall of 240,000 Hyundai, Kia Vehicles

2016 Hyundai Sonata, Image: Hyundai Motor America

He lost his job for it, but Kim Gwang-ho, a 25-year Hyundai veteran at the automaker’s Seoul, South Korea facility, knew he needed to speak out.

The engineer blew the whistle on his employer, reporting the automaker to both South Korean and American officials after uncovering evidence Hyundai was covering up a defect in several of its models. Kim even published internal documents to back up his claim.

Kim, 55, was fired from his job, but authorities took note. As a result, a further 240,000 vehicles — totaling 12 models — have been added to a recall already 1.4 million strong.

According to the New York Times, Hyundai disputes Kim’s claim, despite being ordered by Korea’s Transport Ministry to recall nearly a quarter million Hyundai and Kia vehicles. It also forwarded its concerns about a cover-up to prosecutors. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into the issue, telling the NYT it will act if required.

“The issues raised were being monitored before his request was made, as part of our stringent internal procedures,â€� the automaker said in a statement.

What were those issues? According to the ministry, the defects include damaged vacuum lines and excessive ventilation resistance in fuel vapor canisters. The issues can lead to engine damage and stalling.

Last month, Hyundai recalled about 1.4 million vehicles in Korea and the U.S. over engine debris issues that could also lead to stalling. A further 500,000 vehicles were recalled in 2015 over a similar problem with its Theta 2 engine, though Hyundai and the ministry disagree on whether the issues are related.

For Kim, the drama started during a July 2015 meeting. After his colleagues allegedly mentioned downplaying a recently discovered engine flaw in a bid to reduce repair costs, Kim feared he would become embroiled in a criminal investigation. In the recent past, Korea’s secretive, top-heavy corporations and government have become rife with accusations of corruption and cover-ups. The country’s former president fell victim to it, with some company executives now facing charges.

Speaking out against an employer is deeply frowned upon in Korean culture, leaving Kim a virtual outcast. Still, when his meeting with Hyundai’s auditors apparently failed to get action on the engine issue, Kim took his evidence to the media. He also posted it online, updating the information regularly.

“At first my wife asked me not to do it,” Kim told Reuters. “She was worried about living costs if I’m fired. But I’m stubborn, and persuaded her that the problems will be buried forever without my confession.”

At the time, Kim said the 2015 recall was just the tip of the iceberg, claiming Hyundai knew the engine contained a design problem. In his view, the automaker was sitting on information in an effort to sidestep a very expensive repair process.

Late last year, Hyundai filed a court injunction to stop Kim from posting the documents, later suing him for breach of trust. A police investigation ensued. The automaker fired the engineer last November, but the legal battle didn’t end until the country’s Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission ruled he should be given his job back. Returning to work in April, Kim lasted a month before handing in his resignation today. In response, the automaker agreed to end all legal action against him.

“I will be the first and last whistleblower in South Korea’s auto industry,” Kim said yesterday. “There are just too many things to lose. I had a normal life and was better off, but now I’m fighting against a big conglomerate.”

[Image: Hyundai Motor America]

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