South Korea mulls a ban on fire-prone BMW cars

The South Korean government is considering banning from the roads any BMW vehicle that has not been subject to a recall safety check after more than 30 incidents in which cars caught fire. Julian Ryall reports.

The South Korean unit of the Munich-based company is struggling to deal with the negative fallout from the engine fire problem.

"Unforeseen fires breaking out in public places like petrol stations and parking lots could lead to bigger accidents, so we are considering banning any BMW that has not undergone safety tests from being driven," said Kim Hyun-mi, the South Korean minister of transport, in an emergency press conference on Wednesday.

The minister called on the company to introduce measures to stop the problem worsening and prevent similar incidents in the future, adding that punishments will be stepped up against any company that fails to deal with a product crisis adequately.

"Companies found guilty of delaying recalls or hiding defects will face severe punishment that makes it difficult for them to sell their products in Korea again," he said.

Read more: South Korea launches probe into BMW car recall after engine fires

On Thursday, however, pictures of two more burning BMW vehicles were posted on social media sites, bringing the total number of such cases to eight in August alone. In total, at least 36 BMW cars have caught fire in South Korea this year, according to media reports.

The driver of one of the cars, a BMW 730Ld that caught fire on the Namhae Highway in South Gyeongsang Province, told the Yonhap news agency that he had pulled over on the hard shoulder and saw smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. As he lifted the bonnet, he saw a spark and the engine caught fire. No one was injured in either incident.

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Examining faults

On July 27, BMW Korea issued a recall notice for more than 45,000 cars. Sixty-one engineers at after-service centers across the country have been working 24-hours a day to solve the problem, the company said, although it is feared that not all BMW models will have been examined for faults before the deadline of August 14 for the company to rectify the problem.

BMW Korea did not respond to requests from DW for a comment, although information on the company web site indicates that the fault lies with a plastic engine manifold component melting at high temperatures.

The company said it has shared the information with the transport ministry "and will cooperate fully with the authorities in the future."

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Public anger

That, however, has not been enough to calm public anger at BMW's handling of the crisis.

On Thursday, a group of 21 BMW car owners filed a legal complaint with police in central Seoul naming six top officials of the South Korean unit of the car manufacturer and its parent company and demanding an investigation into the fires. The complaint named Kim Hyo-joon, head of the firm's South Korean unit, and Johann Ebenbichler, vice president of quality management, said Ha Jong-sun, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Speaking to the media, Ha said the complaint calls on prosecutors to investigate e-mail correspondence between BMW Korea and its German headquarters for evidence that the company attempted to cover up the defects. The plaintiffs claim the company knew about the problem as early as 2016 but tried to hide the problem, only ordering a recall in July 2018.

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Andrew Salmon, author of "Modern Korea: All that matters," says the company has done itself damage by the way it has failed to respond to the problem.

"In Seoul, BMW cars are known as 'Gangnam Sonatas' – the every man's car that is very popular with the well-to-do because it is an expensive imported brand," Salmon told DW. "BMWs have been a hugely successful brand here, but this has seriously tarnished their name and it will hurt them for some time to come."

Song Young-chae, a professor at the Center for Global Creation and Collaboration at Seoul's Sangmyung University, said people – and not just BMW owners – are angry.

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Fault 'not the problem'

"What would happen if Hyundai or Kia cars were catching fire on the roads in Germany?" Song asked.

"The government would act. The companies would have to do something. BMW has not done enough and there will be serious problems if it is shown that they hid the problem. I don't think the technical fault with the cars is the real problem in this case," he told DW.

"Other companies have problems with their products all the time, so it is something that we have to accept. The problem is the way in which they have responded. BMW has not dealt with this problem in the same way they would have done in Germany and Korean people feel that they have not been honest with is and that they have no respect for their Korean customers," he added.

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