For Kim Gwang-ho, it has been 1,700 days since he first told U.S. regulators that his then-employer, Hyundai Motor Co. , was failing to address a design flaw linked to engines seizing up and at times catching fire.

Mr. Kim, a former safety engineer at the Korean auto maker, said the days he has counted will be worth it if he receives a reward he believes he is entitled to as part of a whistleblower program Congress ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create in 2015.

The problem: The agency never set up the program.

After going public with his concerns, Mr. Kim lost his job, was sued by Hyundai for allegedly leaking business secrets and had his house outside Seoul searched by police. Now, Mr. Kim said he is unsure when or if he will be compensated for the role he says he played in an investigation that led to a record settlement NHTSA reached with the auto maker and sister company Kia Corp. last year for up to $210 million.

“I have hope that all these pains and all these hard days will be finally rewarded,” Mr. Kim, 59, said in an interview, through an interpreter.


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