By on May 16, 2017

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,” 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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46 Comments on “Company Whistleblower Behind Latest Recall of 240,000 Hyundai, Kia Vehicles...”


  • avatar
    GermanReliabilityMyth

    I guess he shouldn’t have been so Gwang-ho to become a whistleblower.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      Kim Gwang-ho is brave, stubborn and a hero. Kudos to him for having the courage to fight for what is right and to stand up to the company and the culture of repression. The beneficiaries of his actions are tens of thousands of people who he will never meet, and ultimately, Hyundai/Kia itself.
      This particular quality issue is likely just one of many. Before you buy a car, ask the service techs what issues that particular model tends to have, and which models to avoid at all costs. Edmunds owner reviews and online enthusiast forums are good sources as well.

  • avatar
    manu06

    Diogenes on line one.

  • avatar
    S197GT

    had my wife convinced to buy an elantra sport until we found out electric seats are not an option. just can’t take that step back…

    this makes me feel a bit better about the fact we will probably end up in a civic touring.

    after all, what good is that long warranty if they deny problems exist??? it is, literally, “operating as designed”.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Yes, but this sort of stuff happens with every automaker. They all have known issues—some of them safety issues—that they’ll vehemently deny until it’s no longer possible to do so. In fact, I’m convinced that when GM got busted for the ignition switch scandal, their thoughts were: “Whew! Thank god they didn’t find the other nine or ten major defects on these cars!”

      • 0 avatar
        S197GT

        i agree it happens a lot and more than we know but i’m not so jaded to think it happens everywhere; at least not to the degree that every manufacturer has a quarter million cars that need to be recalled if we only knew…

        sure, there are some parts that are just bad and people are like, man, we whiffed it on that one… no car and all it’s parts are perfect after all. but manufacturers like mazda, with my cx-9, realize that the power transfer unit in their first gen cx-9s were failing too early, so they extended the warranty. (got mine replaced free of charge and a rental) there are lots of manufacturers that do that because they own up to their mistakes. costs them a lot of money but they do the right thing.

        and it still makes sense to avoid manufacturers with a proven history of hiding defects.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          This is also true.

          • 0 avatar
            kychungkevin

            In recent memory we have GM (key cylinder), Ford (roll over), VW (emission), Hyundai (engine defects), Toyota (unintended acceleration), Mitsubishi (mpg claim, Japan only) and Honda (Takata airbags) scandals; and these are only those that got busted. We have to admit the covering up are industry-wide practice.

    • 0 avatar
      Erikstrawn

      “after all, what good is that long warranty if they deny problems exist??? it is, literally, “operating as designed”.”

      I have a domestic pony car, and the local dealer refused to hear an obvious suspension clunk until the car passed out of warranty. Immediately afterwards they could plainly hear the problem but refused to attempt to fix it on warranty even though I’d brought it in twice before. If I’d had them perform my 30K mile service (instead of saving myself $300 by doing it in my driveway) they’d probably have fixed it.

      It’s not just the automakers covering up. It’s not just the suppliers covering up. It’s everybody with a paycheck and lax ethics. An ethics class should be required for high school graduation.

    • 0 avatar
      S197GT

      @kychungkevin

      1.the toyota unintended acceleration was not a defect.

      2. the takata airbag scandal belongs to takata. not to honda, that is unfair. 19 automakers have since issued recalls on takata airbags.

      “Earlier this year, the Department of  Transportation released the results of its study into the blizzard of reports that various Toyota and Lexus models were accelerating out of control. The DOT concluded that, other than a number of incidents caused by accelerators hanging up on incorrectly fitted floor mats, the accidents were caused by drivers depressing their accelerators when they intended to apply their brakes. “Pedal misapplication” was the DOT’s delicate terminology  for this phenomenon.”

      http://www.caranddriver.com/features/its-all-your-fault-the-dot-renders-its-verdict-on-toyotas-unintended-acceleration-scare-feature

      ——

      Vehicles made by 19 different automakers have been recalled to replace frontal airbags on the driver’s side or passenger’s side, or both in what NHTSA has called “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.”

      http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2016/05/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-takata-air-bag-recall/index.htm

      • 0 avatar
        PenguinBoy

        @S197GT-

        1) A poorly designed gas pedal that’s prone to getting trapped under floor mats is a defect.

        2) Honda put their name on the car, not Takata, so they own the problem. While it’s true that many automakers were impacted by this problem, Honda was one of them, and the problem was particularly widespread at Honda.

      • 0 avatar
        kychungkevin

        @S197GT

        1. From wikipedia: “Early on, Toyota suggested that driver error was to blame, saying that some people may have hit the gas when they meant to hit the brake. Even after issuing recalls to address problematic floor mats that in some cases pinned down accelerators, the company hid a flawed gas pedal design that it knew did the same thing”

        2. From NY Times: “The danger of exploding air bags was not disclosed for years after the first reported incident in 2004, despite red flags — including three additional ruptures reported to Honda in 2007, according to interviews, regulatory filings and court records.
        In each of the incidents, Honda settled confidential financial claims with people injured by the air bags, but the automaker did not issue a safety recall until late 2008, and then for only a small fraction — about 4,200 — of its vehicles eventually found to be equipped with the potentially explosive air bags.”

        • 0 avatar
          S197GT

          HTML links please.

          As for Toyota, I’ll take the conclusion of the US Dept of Transportation investigation over a (alleged) wikipedia excerpt.

          (You know… that’s not a REAL Encyclopedia, right?)

          I’m just going to leave this here:

          “The DOT found nothing about the placement of Toyota accelerator and brake pedals that would have promoted misapplication.”

          (From Car and Driver article referenced above.)

          I’m gonna tell you the same thing I tell my wife when she gets emotional about an argument long after her point has been shown to be irrational and we’ve entered some kind of twilight zone where she thinks she makes sense…

          I’m done arguing about it, Shelley.

          As for Honda, provide a link to your source please.

          • 0 avatar
            kychungkevin

            I agree Wiki not necessary true. So i found other link instead:

            http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/toyota-pay-12b-hiding-deadly-unintended-acceleration/story?id=22972214

            And this is the link to Honda I was quoting:

            https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/business/air-bag-flaw-long-known-led-to-recalls.html

            At the end will I ever buy Toyota Honda GM VW Hyundai? Yes as long as they makes good cars; at the same time I also know every companies goal wasn’t just make good cars to people but making money to please their shareholders; when the time come again they would choose to save money and keeping their reputation (by covering up) about all else.

  • avatar
    JEFFSHADOW

    I will simply Never Buy a Korean car. Not even the Buick Encore.
    Look how the typical owner of a K-POP car drives and you will understand. I think they drive crazy because they are being chased by mean people who hate having a Korean car in front of them! For proof just watch videos of the 84,000 cars a day traveling Highway 15 (through the Cajon Pass) in southern California. Elantras, Fortes, Optimas and Sonatas are all being driven by stupid lowlife maniacs unhappy with their upside-down purchase decision.
    Sad!
    Make Pontiac Great Again!

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      The engine and trans of the Buicks are made in North America. That is the most expensive part of the car besides the body being salvaged.

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        Norm, those $99 per month lease clown car Buick Encores are proliferating like rodents among the blue-hair crowd in the Suburban Metro Detroit Area.

        They usually do 10 to 20mph under posted speed limits, and have one blinker on perpetually.

        They sound like wheezing COPD asthmatics when I blow past them after my patience wears out.

        Any way for you, as the Buick Encore Cult Club Leader, to pressure GM of Korea and China to automatically Trifecta Tune them from the factory?

        It will be good for the environment (Trifecta Tune allows 49mpg City/59mpg Highway) and hopefully speed them up somewhat.

    • 0 avatar
      9Exponent

      Is seeing them like staring into a mirror for you?

    • 0 avatar
      SirRaoulDuke

      I am not upside down on my Elantra. And I drive it sensibly, more sensibly than any of the sportier cars I have owned in the past, probably because I bought it specifically to be a daily commuter with zero sporting intent. But then again, I don’t live in that geological hazard you call a state, so maybe I am the outlier.

      • 0 avatar
        JEFFSHADOW

        Yes, agreed. California is a dangerous place to drive. My aunt in Minneapolis has a Hyundai Sonata and she drives like you, carefully and sensibly. Just not true in the Golden State. Remember, though, we do have four seasons: Fire, Flood, Mud and Aridity!

        • 0 avatar
          quaquaqua

          Well, all those wildfire fumes must be what make you think Hyundais are crap when you drive a 4000 pound pig that handles like a school bus yet less reliably.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I have long said that there are a startling amount of newer 4 cylinder Hyundai/Kia products on craigslist for little-to-nothing with “needs engine” or similar. These are the products that use the Theta/Theta II engine. There was a freaking 2011 (that’s twenty eleven!) Kia Optima “needs engine”. And it was not some freakishly high mileage car (like a traveling business person’s 5 year old Impala with 230k on it). Of course its gone now, but there are a few around, as always.

    https://mobile.craigslist.org/cto/6095741999.html

    https://seattle.craigslist.org/skc/cto/6092989772.html

    Disposable cars.

    I hope that guy is able to find work at some other world automaker, maybe GM Korea? He’s one of the good guys, he deserves better that what he’s got now IMO.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      My 01 Elantra was traded at 201k miles with its original 2.0 engine, but it was rust that claimed the body after 13 years in Pittsburgh.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenn

      He’ll never see his former pay rate again – if he even finds another job as an engineer. Few companies (virtually none) want to hire someone with a record of being a whistleblower. They consider that person “not a team player.”

    • 0 avatar
      quaquaqua

      John, there’s absolutely no data (the Craigslist car ghetto is not a source) to back up those claims. All the car data sites that track car problems/complaints show average or fewer complaints for Hyundai/Kia engine problems for 10 years now. These cars also all have 100k mile warranties, don’t forget. My friend’s Outback has 55k miles and needs $3000 in engine repair, like almost all Subarus, yet there’s no recalls for any of those ticking timebombs.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    “Damaged vacuum lines” and replacing vapor canisters doesn’t sound like that huge a deal as a recall expense. I was expecting pistons that break in half at 50,000km or transmissions that don’t transmit.

    I’ve been told by industry insiders that dealers kind of like recalls because it gets the customer back to the store where they can often be sold new stuff…vehicles or services in the shop.

  • avatar
    SuperCarEnthusiast

    In Asian cultures, a whistleblower is pretty much look at as a traitor or an enemy of the company. Sad by he will not be able to find employment in the private sector but might be able to find one in the public sector of Korea.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    This guy is a hero, literally.

    He should run for high office in Korea and clean the nasty sh!t in Korea up; he’ll be the Korean Elliot Ness.

  • avatar
    dont.fit.in.cars

    Nice guys finish last. Says everything about a company one needs to know. Says a lot about a culture as well.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    So whats the bottom line? Can I buy one now?

  • avatar
    zip89123

    Reminder how not standing up to the boss wreaked havoc at Fukashima? Hope the whistleblower has laws to help him out. If not, expect some soon!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The ‘stalling’ due to engine debris is an understatement.

    H/K had a third-party mfr of their crankshafts who forgot to clean the machining chips from the parts. H/K foolishly let 1.x million of these suspect crankshafts end up int their cars, with a 2% chance of total engine failure – spun bearings, broken rods, etc.

    It is not a design flaw, but rather a mfg flaw followed by a breach in the incoming quality assurance process.

    I personally know 3 people whose engines blew due to this issue, and my son and I each have one that could go some day. His already had the acoustic check and oil check, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. He feels like he could be driving a time bomb. My hybrid has not been checked yet. They extend your engine warranty to 12/120, I believe, but my son intends to ditch his car once 120k approaches.

    The local Hyundai dealer had 2.4 engines stacked up like cordwood behind their shop, which I photographed because it was such a sight to behold. I have been a H/K partisan for 8 years now, but I must admit this episode gives me pause.

    On the other hand, my one friend whose 2.0T was replaced ended up riding around for 2 months in a nice Altima rental while Hyundai repaired his car. He didn’t mind one bit, and thought the service was great.

    • 0 avatar
      Andrew717

      If you have the hybrid, you don’t get the warranty extension. We’re in the process of replacing the 67,000 mile engine in my wife’s Sonata Hybrid. $6900 out of pocket, nothing from Hyundai. Second owners, so the warranty only goes to 60,000 miles.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    Over here Hyundai was famous/infamous for their Excel losing complete suspension assemblies while the car was still in motion with the usual results.

    Kia was also well known for their sub 3.0 v6 engines doing headgaskets or worse on a regular basis.

    We thought the Koreans were past that. We were wrong.

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      *raises hand*

      Not me. I never thought they were over making terrible excuses of vehicles for people who only know that a car needs to have wheels and chairs inside.

  • avatar
    incautious

    Engine failures started popping up years ago on the various automotive forums. Even though people had documented that they had maintained their car to the letter by having them serviced at the dealership, H/K were denying warranted claims. This fact alone kept me from looking for anything made by H/K. Like someone here said , what good is a warranty if they don’t stand behind it.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Honda also had the issue with there 2.0 Civic engine prompting them to call back 42,129 to inspect the motors for missing or incorrectly installed wrist pin circlip’s. A colleague at work has a 2016 that had to have his engine replaced with only 700 miles on the clock. He had to wait until the middle of Summer before a new engine was delivered to the dealer. these things do happen to most manufacturers.

    http://www.autoblog.com/2016/02/24/2016-honda-civic-sedan-2-liter-recall-official/

  • avatar
    cartunez

    Hopefully the guy is not struggling financially otherwise every owner should chip in for a gofundme for him.

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