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[Video] Whistleblower urges US Customs to investigate Korean Air smuggling allegations

Korean Air’s Park Chang-jin demands full justice over chaebol abuse of power

[Herald Interview]

Park Chang-jin, a Korean Air employee of 22 years, revealed in 2014 what has come to be known as the “nut rage” incident.

He said that Cho Hyun-ah, 42, then-Korean Air senior vice president, forced him, then a cabin crew chief, and a junior attendant who served nuts to her in an unopened package, to apologize on their knees.

The Korean Air chairman’s daughter used abusive language and jabbed Park several times with a service manual. Cho even ordered the taxiing aircraft to return to the gate at Kennedy International Airport in New York so that Park could disembark from the plane.

Cho was convicted and jailed by a local court for violating aviation laws, but was released after receiving a suspended sentence from the Supreme Court. She eventually returned as president of the KAL Hotel Network, a hotel business owned by Korean Air.

(Video shot and produced by Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)

Meanwhile, Park, 47, was demoted to a flight attendant when he returned to work after treatment for psychological trauma. Last year, he sued the company, accusing it of illegally demoting and ostracizing him. He has also filed a case against Cho and Korean Air, claiming damages for mental anguish.

After four years, little appears to have changed at Korean Air.

On Friday, hundreds of Korean Air pilots, cabin crew and ground workers gathered in central Seoul chanting “Cho family must step down!”

The candlelight vigil was triggered by Cho Hyun-min, the younger sister of Cho Hyun-ah, who stepped down from a senior executive position at the company after revelations that she allegedly threw a cup of water at the face of an advertising agency employee during a business meeting in March.

Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho apologized for what he called the “immature behavior” of his two daughters and said they would both immediately resign from their posts.

At the rally was Park, who continues to hold a separate one-man protest against his company, calling for a thorough investigation into the two sisters and their family.

The Korea Herald interviewed Park a few hours ahead of Friday‘s rally.

Korean Air employee Park Chang-jin (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Korean Air employee Park Chang-jin (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)

Korea Herald: Why is the abuse of power by chaebol still a frequent occurrence even after the “nut rage” scandal four years ago?

Park: The scandal drew the media and the public’s attention to the misbehavior of chaebol, but it failed to provide an opportunity to address it in a more fundamental way: That is, why does a worker in a weaker position become subject to the abuse of power by the top of the hierarchy? The real focus should be on why their unlawful behaviors continue with impunity.

KH: Why have you decided to stand up against chaebol?

Park: For four years, I’ve faced retaliation and have fought alone to ensure my rights as a worker. But it’s not just me. So many victims of chaebol’s power abuse are often ignored, disbelieved, or retaliated against. Cho Hyun-min’s “water rage” is just one such incident.

The company’s systematic abuse of whoever says no to wrongdoing prevents workers from standing up and addressing it. Although I don’t consider myself a representative of my co-workers, I have decided to step forward to say no to abuse by chaebol because they have been disadvantaging me anyway.

But for others, they will lose everything, from financial losses to their career’s future. Chaebol keep abusing their power and silencing workers.

KH: Does the physical and verbal abuse by chaebol also impact the safety of passengers?

Park: Apart from the abuse of power, the Cho family also faces allegations that they smuggled goods from overseas to evade taxation. (The Cho sisters and their family are currently being investigated by the Korea Customs Service for smuggling and tax evasion allegations. The smuggled goods were allegedly put in boxes and transported via Korean Air aircraft, according to the company’s former and current employees who recently leaked information about the alleged smuggling.)

During the air deliveries for Cho’s family, all the crew took extra care of the packages that they bought mostly in the United States, rather than of passengers, because even a scratch on the packages could lead to punishment and disadvantages for them.

Above all, the goods were (allegedly) being smuggled without X-ray scans or customs clearance, which is clearly a criminal act against the federal law of the United States, not just against the domestic customs law. The smuggled goods might have contained forbidden items including high-pressure gas like portable stoves, which put air safety at a great risk.

The US Customs and Border Protection offices should separately investigate the (alleged) smuggling practice secretly committed by them and how they did it.

KH: What message would you like to send to workers from your fight against chaebol’s power abuse?

Park: Many people, including myself, had a pessimistic view of my fight. But I’ve endured four years of hardship to stand up for what’s right and set an example. I’m just an ordinary citizen and can’t fix things immediately, and the same with the rally. But nothing will change in the long term unless you do something right now. I know things will get better, eventually.

By Bak Se-hwan (  and Lim Jeong-yeo (