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Korean electoral branch's ODA projects linked to criminal activities: lawmaker

South Korea’s National Election Commission is deeply involved with a Korean nongovernmental organization’s alleged criminal activities linked to its past foreign aid projects of installing election automation equipment in developing democracies overseas, including Fiji and Ecuador, a lawmaker revealed during the parliamentary inspection of the electoral branch on Tuesday.

The revelation comes just about three weeks after the NEC’s former secretary-general Kim Dai-nyeon abruptly resigned as the agency became embroiled in a number of serious corruption allegations, especially regarding its indirect involvement with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s controversial upcoming elections.

Official development assistance (ODA), defined as government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries, is provided bilaterally from the South Korean government to the recipient countries. 

Kim Dai-nyeon (third from left), the former secretary-general of South Korea`s National Election Commission, poses with Congolese political activists in August.
Kim Dai-nyeon (third from left), the former secretary-general of South Korea`s National Election Commission, poses with Congolese political activists in August.

A-web, a Korean NGO that is almost entirely funded by the NEC, provided voting and vote-counting machines in developing countries with ODA funds from 2015-17. Current A-web head Kim Yong-hi, who also served as secretary-general of the NEC from 2014-16, has been under investigation by prosecutors on allegations of embezzlement and bribery since earlier this year.

According to Rep. Kwon Mi-hyuk of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, the NGO illicitly signed an exclusive deal worth 5 billion won ($4.4 million) with local Korean firm Miru Systems for the ODA projects from 2015-2017, when they were supposed to go through an open bidding process.

Under the ODA projects, Miru was able to supply its voting and vote-counting machines to a number of countries, including Fiji, Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and El Salvador, among others.

Rep. Kwon said it is not just a matter concerning NEC’s former secretary-general Kim -- who is still head of A-web -- but also civil servants working at the electoral branch who were involved in alleged criminal activities linked with the ODA funds. Through her research the lawmaker found a NEC employee surnamed Kim, who was responsible for NEC’s ODA projects, was once subject to police investigation for allegedly having received inappropriate perks from Miru Systems.

Miru also has been exclusively supplying vote-counting machines for all elections in South Korea, including the latest presidential election, since 2014 -- the same year A-web head Kim was appointed secretary-general of the NEC.

Kim served as both the head of A-web and the secretary-general of the NEC from 2014-2016.

According to another lawmaker, Rep. Cho Won-jin from the small opposition Korean Patriots’ Party, the NEC signed 43 contracts worth about 32.5 billion won in total with Miru Systems from 2013 to this year. 

“Miru Systems basically has been the sole supplier of all election-related machines in our country, without any public bidding process,” the lawmaker said. “The NEC’s inappropriate favoritism toward this firm must be thoroughly investigated.”

Through A-web, Miru has been supplying its voting machines overseas through non-ODA deals as well, and has been at the center of controversy overseas, especially in Congo.

The firm is supplying some 105,000 machines to Congo as part of a $150 million contract for the country’s long-delayed presidential election that is set for Dec. 23.

Critics of the deal, including the US, Congolese activists and Human Rights Watch, say the machines carry a high risk of undermining the reliability of the upcoming vote, as millions of people there are illiterate and lack access to electricity.

Last month, some 22 pro-democracy activists in Congo were violently detained by police in Kinshasa for staging a peaceful protest against the introduction of the Korean-made machines.

Kim Dai-nyeon, former-secretary general of the NEC, abruptly resigned last month almost two months after a number of Congolese activists residing in Korea visited the agency asking the Korean government to ban Miru Systems from supplying the machines to their country. In his resignation letter, he urged current head of A-web Kim to step down from his post as well.

“(The recent controversies are) clearly due to the personal deviations of A-web Secretary-General Kim Yong-hi,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

“I decided that I needed to normalize the situation regarding A-web before it was too late and to resign. I hope that Kim will also take the responsibility by withdrawing himself and resigning. I think that we, as two people who sat in the important position of secretary-general of the NEC, should show our junior colleagues the proper behavior fitting for South Korea.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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