A Seoul court sentenced Cho Hyun-ah, a former Korean Air vice president and the eldest daughter of the company chairman, to one year in prison for endangering aviation safety by ordering a taxiing plane to return to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in December.
In a case that came to be known as the “nut rage” and gained worldwide notoriety, Cho, who was vice president in charge of cabin service, verbally and physically abused flight attendants over the serving of macadamia nuts. She also ordered the senior cabin crew to disembark, causing the plane to return to the gate.
Cho apologized after the incident became public, as did father Cho Yang-ho, who took responsibility for not raising his daughter right. Yet, the people who saw Cho on television apologizing, head hanging low and tearful, were still not convinced that she felt remorse for her act. In fact, the flight attendant who had been ordered to deplane said that he never received a sincere apology from her.
What riled the public was that this was not the first time that a chaebol scion was accused of such despicable behavior. There was the infamous case of a Hanwha chairman beating a man in a barroom brawl with a metal pipe for messing with his son. There was also the case of an SK offspring beating a man with a baseball bat and then throwing cash at him as “payment for getting beaten up.”
The first-generation chaebol were mostly pioneers in their fields who worked hard to achieve success. By contrast, the second- and third-generation chaebol offspring have mostly led a cocooned life, enjoying the fruits of the success of their progenitors. They assume top positions at the company after quickly scaling the corporate ladder. They are surrounded by employees who are loathe to be naysayers to the young rulers who wield virtually uncontested power.
The unfortunate incident at Korean Air, some observers say, was trouble bound to happen. The corporate culture was such that the executives were not able to voice their opinions that might be disagreeable to the owning family. In fact, chairman Cho is said to have asked his executives why no one had told him the truth about his daughter’s case.
In the sentencing, the court said the case involved destroying a person’s dignity, value and self-worth. It also noted that the incident could not have taken place unless employees were considered slaves or if there had been at least the modicum of consideration for another human being.
The “nut rage” case sends warnings about Korea’s backward conglomerate culture. The case shows what can happen when an unqualified, untrained young chaebol scion quickly rises through the ranks to the top position as their birthright. The result is unfortunate for the person, the company and society.