Government grants towards the recovery of Ansan City from the shock of the Sewol ferry sinking were found to have been abused.
According to data submitted Saturday by the city government to Suh Bum-soo, a National Assembly member of the ruling People Power Party, Ansan received 1 billion won ($759,000) to 2 billion won in “Sewol ferry tragedy grants” annually for six years, from 2017 to this year. The grants came from central and local governments under the special act regarding the sinking.
Most of the families of those who died in the accident live in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. In particular, Danwon High School is located within Ansan. Of the 476 passengers, 299 died in the tragedy, and among the dead were 248 Danwon High School students and 10 teachers.
Ansan distributed grants to various civic groups that would carry out “programs for the recovery of the local community.”
A youth association received 20 million won in 2018 on two occasions under the pretext of running “a program to cure and recover generations of the future.” However, in actuality, it was discovered the government grants were spent on events propagandizing North Korea.
In a seminar the youth association held, participants reportedly studied North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year addresses. Few would believe connection between studying Kim's New Year addresses and healing from trauma of the accident.
The association got an additional 5 million won that year and spent it holding a lecture for local college students. It screened a film called “Truth about (North Korean founder) Kim Il-sung’s struggle against Japanese colonial occupiers.” The content of the lecture included “US interference in South Korean domestic affairs and the US-Korea Working Group causing the breakup of inter-Korean relations (in the days of former President Moon Jae-in).” The group also put up 25 banners around the city saying “Want to go to Pyongyang?” It is astonishing that money that should have been used to help recover the city from the tragedy was spent on advocating North Korea and denouncing South Korea and the United States.
Before 2018, the association was said to have posted North Korea-friendly content on social media, but Ansan still distributed grant money to the group. The city should have been able to properly screen and determine this association was not well-intentioned.
There were many other cases showing irrelevant use of the Sewol tragedy grants. Many small organizations each received 10 million won to 40 million won, and used the money for tea parties or travel. One group used most of their 11 million-won grant money for members to tour Jeonju Hanok (Korean traditional house) Village as well as a trip to Jeju island for “field experience.” Sewol ferry sank on the way to Jeju.
Bum estimated about 30 to 40 percent of 11 billion won in grants provided to Ansan for the past six years were used improperly. It is hard to understand how these civic groups could misappropriate taxpayer money under the guise that their activities would go toward healing others from the devastating accident.
Ahead of the June 13, 2018 local elections, Je Jong-geel, then Mayor of Ansan representing the Democratic Party of Korea, was said to have doled out Sewol grants to 96 small organizations across the city, including women’s groups in apartment communities, community service clubs, cooperatives and civic groups. Each organization received grants ranging from 1 million won to 5 million won. Aspiring Ansan mayoral candidates complained of Je’s possible violation of the election law.
An investigation into the allegations of this grant money abuse looks inevitable. It is unjust and unlawful for non-governmental organizations to receive and then misuse government grant money for completely unrelated purposes. These self-serving acts must be probed, laid bare and rooted out. On this occasion, full inspection needs to take place to determine if taxpayer money spent thus far in connection with the repeated investigations of the Sewol ferry sinking as well as with recovery from the tragedy were used improperly. We need to protect assistance provided to bereaved families and survivors as well as protect the remembrance of the Sewol ferry deceased.