S. Korean Press Arbitration Commission finds allegations of accounting fraud at Korean Council were exaggerated or untrue

Posted on : 2020-08-03 16:30 KST Modified on : 2020-08-03 16:30 KST
Numerous media outlets retract articles that quote incorrect figures
Prosecutors conduct a search and seizure investigation of the offices of the Korean Council in June. (Lee Jeong-a, staff photographer)
Prosecutors conduct a search and seizure investigation of the offices of the Korean Council in June. (Lee Jeong-a, staff photographer)

South Korea’s Press Arbitration Commission (PAC) has found that several articles in the conservative press that raised allegations about accounting irregularities at a comfort women advocacy group were exaggerated or untrue.

Sources from the PAC and the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) who spoke to the Hankyoreh on Aug. 2 pointed to a May 21 article by the Seoul Economic Daily titled “Exclusive: bookkeeping shows a 30 mil. shortfall in gov’t funds returned by Korean Council.”

The Seoul Economic Daily reported that “29.41 million won of the 639 million won [around US$536,000] in government funding that the Korean Council received from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family [MOGEF] last year is missing,” raising the possibility that the council had embezzled the money.

MOGEF had earmarked the money for use in running a shelter for survivors of the Japanese imperial army’s comfort women system, and the Korean Council said it had returned the unused portion of the funds, amounting to 177 million won (around US$150,000). But the newspaper reported that 29.41 million won (around US$25,000) of public funds had not been returned and might still be in the possession of the council.

Unused funds returned to government

But the Korean Council had actually received 609.38 million (around US$511,000) in funding, about 30 million won (around US$25,150) less than what the article claimed. A calculation based on MOGEF’s grant announcement, made public by the council, shows that all the unused funds were actually returned to the government. The Seoul Economic Daily’s article got the facts wrong. Following the PAC arbitration, the newspaper deleted the article in question and printed a correction on its website on Aug. 2.

Another problematic article was published by the Joongang Ilbo on May 19 titled “Exclusive: padded jackets donated by ARMY never delivered to Lee Yong-su and Gwak Ye-nam.” “Allegations have been raised that the Korean Council didn’t give former comfort women Lee Yong-su and Gwak Ye-nam padded jackets that had been donated by the BTS fan club,” the newspaper said. The article printed claims made by Gwak’s adopted daughter without verifying whether the padded jackets had been delivered or not.

The Korean Council retorted that “the padded jackets were delivered to all the former comfort women” and provided supporting evidence: a photo of the jacket being delivered to Kwak in December 2018 and delivery receipts for the jackets sent to 13 of the former comfort women.

Two days later, on May 21, the Joongang Ilbo reversed the claim in a story titled “Gwak Ye-nam’s adopted daughter admits ‘misunderstanding’ after claiming that ARMY donations weren’t delivered.” But PAC recently wrapped up arbitration by requiring the Joongang Ilbo to publish a correction.

In addition to those articles, the Korean Council asked PAC to require corrections and compensation for 13 articles published by nine newspapers, including the Kukmin Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo, and the Korea Economic Daily. So far, PAC has ordered corrections for 11 articles, three of which are to be deleted. PAC told newspapers to revise titles and print alternative views for the other eight articles.

Arbitration did not lead to a conclusion in two articles, and the Korean Council is exploring the option of suing the Chosun Ilbo and the Shin Dong-a in regard to those articles.

Prosecutors losing grounds for investigation

The finding that a considerable number of press reports that raised central allegations about the Korean Council were inaccurate has put prosecutors investigating allegations of fraudulent accounting in an uncomfortable position. The prosecutors promised to “look into all the allegations raised by the press” when they launched their investigation in May, but the foundation of their investigation is being eroded.

Three months into their investigation, the prosecutors are reportedly still trying to determine the basic facts of the case. Until recently, the prosecutors had been calling in bookkeepers from the Korean Council two or three times a week to match the council’s accounting records with its actual expenditures.

So far, the prosecutors haven’t been able to summon Yoon Mee-hyang, lawmaker and former Korean Council chairperson, and the figure at the heart of the allegations. Yoon is implicated in all the allegations raised by the opposition party and the press, which are connected with donations made to her personal bank account and a shelter in Anseong.

By Chai Yoon-tae, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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