The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Free money

Administration to look into NGOs' use of subsidies that snowballed each year

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 30, 2022 - 05:31

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The Yoon Suk-yeol administration will look into nongovernmental organizations' alleged misuse of government subsidies and opaque accounting practices. Subsidies snowballed each year, but money was being wasted at some of them.

The presidential office on Wednesday unveiled the results of a government survey of subsidies distributed to NGOs for the past seven years.

Subsidies totaled 31.4 trillion won ($24.7 billion). The annual subsidy amount increased from 3.5 trillion won in 2016 to 5.4 trillion won in 2022 -- an average annual increase of about 300 billion won. This increase will not be much different for the five years of the Moon Jae-in administration. The number of recipient NGOs increased by 4,334 to 27,215.

Yoon said in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday that it was questionable if the government has thus far properly examined NGOs' use of subsidies. He emphasized there should be no sanctuary when it comes to spending tax. The government found a total of 153 NGO projects "problematic" and redeemed 3.4 billion won, about 0.01 percent of 31.4 trillion won. These figures look too small. It is possible they are the tip of an iceberg. The numbers that the presidential office announced do not include subsidies distributed by local governments, education offices and public institutions.

The nation was jolted in 2020 when allegations surfaced that Youn Mee-hyang, an independent lawmaker expelled from the majority opposition Democratic Party of Korea, embezzled public funds and donations to the "Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan" when she chaired the council.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government recently cancelled the registration of the "Candlelight Revolution Middle-High School Students & Citizen Solidarity" as a non-profit group after finding it had deceived the government about the spending of subsidies. It spent government grants on political activities such as holding a student candlelit vigil demanding Yoon's resignation. The group also used subsidies on hosting lectures to educate middle and high school students on the North Korean Workers' Party.

Government support for NGOs surged for the 10 years when Park Won-soon, an experienced civic activist, served as Seoul mayor. Incumbent Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in September last year that NGOs had received nearly 1 trillion won in subsidies and contract awards from the city under Mayor Park. About half of the city's grants were spent on personnel expenses. Former NGO members were hired as contract employees of the Seoul government, then they helped the NGOs where they had worked.

Two organizations seeking to promote South-North Korean exchanges were found to have handled food and travel expenses inappropriately. A foundation created to support the victims of the Sewol ferry sinking did not hold a workshop it had promised and instead spent related budget purchasing dietary supplements.

A youth group received subsidies from Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, to provide assistance to families who lost relatives in the Sewol sinking, but spent them on holding pro-North Korean lectures. The group posted pro-Pyongyang content on social media and yet received subsidies on two occasions. The city failed to screen NGOs properly. Another civic group received a presidential citation in 2020, even though it was standing trial on charges of embezzling 200 million won in subsidies for its job creation project in 2018 and 2019. The government failed to oversee the spending of subsidies. It neglected doing so.

Generally, NGOs are expected to play an important role in exposing corruption or preventing potential corruption. But it appears that some have developed cozy relations with the previous liberal administration. As a presidential candidate, Yoon criticized corrupt ties between political power and NGOs. He remarked to the effect that NGOs had a symbiotic relationship with political power, with those in power distributing tax to civic groups in return for their support. Yoon made it one of his administration's important policy tasks to raise the transparency of subsidies to NGOs.

Subsidies are not "free money." The government must check carefully if its subsidies are spent as intended and if NGOs are managing heir accounts transparently. Those found to have wasted taxpayers' money should be held accountable. It must stop subsidizing nonprofits that purport to carry out civic engagement while actually sponging off political power or pushing pro-North Korean activism.