Mercedes-Benz has been setting new sales records in Korea in recent years but continues to balk at recalls of faulty airbags in its cars.
The airbags at the center of the controversy were made by Takata of Japan and have been linked to 19 fatalities and 200 injuries around the world.
Mercedes has sold a record 58,606 cars in Korea in the first 10 months of this year, making it the top imported brand. Korea is its fifth-largest foreign market, and the third-biggest for the E-Class and S-Class after China and the U.S.
Automakers around the world have been recalling cars equipped with Takata airbags since 2013, prompted by the discovery of metal shrapnel exploding when the airbags are activated.
In Korea alone, 110,000 cars with Takata airbags have been recalled. Only Hyundai, Kia and SUV maker Ssangyong do not use them. But Mercedes-Benz and GM have refused to recall cars with Takata airbags in Korea. The German automaker says that the airbags in its cars are designed and manufactured differently than the ones that have caused the deaths and injuries.
According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, 13,811 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, 138 E-Class, and 810 E-Class Coupes made before 2012 and sold in Korea are equipped with Takata airbags.
"Other automakers have agreed to recall them even though their cars are equipped with airbags did not cause any problems," a ministry official said. "But Mercedes-Benz has not responded even though a year has passed since we requested a recall."
Mercedes-Benz has opted instead to recall only a select number of models from different countries and have them tested at its headquarters in Germany before deciding on a global recall.
In Korea, it has called in 284 SLK coupes and M-Class SUVs since February, but only 137 were actually turned in. The problem is that Mercedes last month started recalling 351,218 cars with Takata airbags sold in China, and they are the same models made between 2006 and 2012 that have also been sold in Korea.
One industry insider said, "Mercedes probably found it difficult to resist recall pressure in China, where it operates in a joint venture with a local company."
Bareun Party lawmaker Ha Tae-keung raised the issue during a National Assembly hearing on Oct. 19, calling it a "discriminatory measure" due to the difference in market size.
One government official said, "Korean consumers will buy Mercedes cars anyway, so it's not afraid of a backlash here" Kim Pil-soo at Daelim University said, "I can't understand how an internal investigation is still continuing four years after the problems emerged."