Q&A: How South Korea's "nut rage" episode became the talk of the global village

The headline hogging "nut rage" episode reached a conclusion Thursday with a one year prison sentence for its chief protagonist, Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah. A South Korean court found that she violated aviation law when she ordered a crew member off a Dec. 5 flight, forcing the Korean Air plane to return to the gate. Cho, then head of cabin service at the airline, was angered at being offered macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a dish and physically confronted crew in the first-class cabin.


Cho, 40, is the eldest of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho's three children. After graduating from Hotel Management School at Cornell University, Cho in 1999 joined Korean Air, which was founded by her grandfather. She enjoyed fast-track promotion and became an executive in 2006 at the age of 32. Her paternal grandfather is a member of the first generation of Korean entrepreneurs who helped build the South Korean economy from the ashes of Korean War. She is married to a prominent plastic surgeon who performed his nips and tucks in Gangnam, a tony district of Seoul, and has twin sons.


The most serious of the charges was Cho's violation of aviation security law, which prohibits forcing an aircraft to deviate from its planned route. The maximum penalty on that charge was 10 years in prison. Prosecutors called for a total of three years in prison for all the charges which included assaulting a flight attendant, hindering a government probe, and obstructing flight personnel. The only charge Cho was cleared of was hindering the government's probe.


Cho and her family ran Korean Air by instilling fear. No criticism was allowed against their prickly management. Park Chang-jin, the chief flight attendant forced to disembark from the plane by Cho, told judges that she treated employees "like feudal slaves." Kim Do-hee, the flight attendant who served macadamia nuts in a bag to Cho, testified that she saw Cho's power at the airline as "unimaginably big." When Cho became furious, she was like a "beast looking for prey" and an "angry tiger" according to the testimony of the two flight attendants.


The incident touched a nerve in South Korea where the economy is dominated by family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol. Public opinion has turned against the founding families who have tended to treat their sprawling businesses that employ millions of people like personal empires. Their crimes, including tax evasion and embezzling company funds, have usually been punished with suspended prison sentences and later given a clean slate through presidential pardon. The first and second generations of these families were credited with helping to transform South Korea from economic backwater to developed nation. But the third generation is regarded as pampered and entitled and the public is less tolerant of their excesses.


"Personally, I think the one year sentence was a bit short," said Jo Young-sang, 24. "Recently, issues regarding such behaviors are the talk of the town. I think there will be no improvement in the service industry working environment if conglomerates continue to treat people like this."

"To me, the nut rage incident looked like a rich kid in an elementary school looking down on poor or weak kids," said Chang Sabine, a teacher. "I think she should be doing community service to become mentally matured."


Tax evasion, breach of trust and embezzlement are the most frequent chaebol family crimes. Cho's father Cho Yang-ho, Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, Hyundai Motor chairman Chung Mong-koo, Hanwha chairman Kim Seung-youn, SK chairman Chey Tae-won and CJ Group chairman Lee Jay-hyun are among the chaebol bosses convicted for white collar crimes. Of them, only Chey has been in prison. Bosses at Samsung, Hyundai Motor, Korean Air and Hanhwa received suspended prison terms. In 2007, Hanwha's Kim was found guilty of beating bar workers who scuffled with his then 22-year-old son. Kim's bodyguards took the victims to a construction site near the capital where the tycoon kicked and punched them.


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