Outrage over Korean Air family behavior sparks movement for workers

By Wooyoung Lee
Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-min (C) speaks to the media at the Seoul Gangseo Police Station in Seoul on May 1 after being accused of throwing water at an ad executive during a business meeting. File Photo by Kim Hee-chul/EPA-EFE
1 of 6 | Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-min (C) speaks to the media at the Seoul Gangseo Police Station in Seoul on May 1 after being accused of throwing water at an ad executive during a business meeting. File Photo by Kim Hee-chul/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, June 8 (UPI) -- Public outrage over the behavior of the family that owns South Korea's biggest air carrier -- notorious for an heiress' "nut rage" incident -- has sparked a social movement against family succession in the leadership of such conglomerates.

Over the past month, hundreds of Korean Air employees -- wearing Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities -- have demonstrated on the streets of Seoul calling for the resignation of Cho family members from executive roles.


Among the allegations against the five-member family:

-- Lee Myung-hee, 69, former chairwoman of the Ilwoo Foundation, a nonprofit of Korean Air's parent company, Hanjin Group, and wife of the Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho: She is being investigated for assault, verbal abuse, tax evasion and embezzlement, among other charges.

-- Cho Hyun-min, also known as Emily Cho, the couple's 35-year-old daughter: She is accused of throwing a container of water at an advertising agency official's face in a business meeting in March, while serving as vice president of Korean Air's budget airliner Jin Air. A court declined to bring criminal charges.


-- Daughter Cho Hyun-ah, 43, also known as Heather Cho: She captured international headlines in 2014 when as a Korean Air vice president, she returned a flight to its gate at JFK International Airport in New York and forced an employee to grovel over how macadamia nuts were served. Cho Hyun-ah was sentenced to 10 months in prison -- suspended for two years.

-- Lee and Cho Hyun-ah are accused of illegally hiring Filipino housekeepers who were disguised as vocational trainees for the Korean Air.

-- The Cho sisters are accused of having their employees ship travel luggage containing luxury items such as bags, chocolates and snacks they secretly purchased overseas twice a week on Korean Air flights, Maeil Business News reported. On Monday, Cho Hyun-ah was called for questioning by the state tax office for allegedly smuggling foreign goods without paying customs duties.

-- Investigators are looking into an alleged illicit university transfer of Cho Won-tae, the Korean Air president and son of the couple, which dates back 20 years.

Much of the accusations came from a voice file uploaded to a Korean Air employee chatroom used to discuss the complaints and organize candlelight vigils in protest.

Prosecutors have raided Korean Air headquarters and family residences in the past two months looking for evidence.


Cho Yang-ho announced April 22 that his daughters had resigned their positions with the company and that the airline would create a new vice chairman position to be filled by someone outside the family.

"I am deeply sorry that problems connected to my family have worried the people and employees of Korean Air," he said. "As chairman of Korean Air and as the head of my family, I feel crushed by the immature behavior of my daughters."

Cho Yang-ho stepped down as CEO of Jin Air on May 10, but remained as a director.

Lee has stepped down from the Ilwoo Foundation.

The Seoul Central District Court on Tuesday declined to issue an arrest warrant for Lee, further fueling the airline employees' efforts to get the rest of the family ousted from the company.

"We will never give up," the Alliance of Korean Air Employees said in a statement. "The only thing we can do to win the fight against the haves is to have one unified voice. The Cho family has to pay for their wrongdoings and leave the company for good."

In a May 9 statement, the airline acknowledged some of the complaints against Lee but denied she hit a worker at her home: "Regarding a series of news reports related to the chairperson Lee Myung-hee, we admit some acts of violence and offer an apology to the victims."


Abuse by young successors to conglomerates, known as "chaebol," has been going on for years in the South Korean business community.

A son of the Hanwha Chairman Kim Seung-youn, Kim Dong-sun, was arrested for violent, drunk behavior in 2010 and 2017. Engineering and construction giant Daelim's third-generation successor, Lee Hae-woo, was accused of verbal abuse and assault against his personal driver in 2016.

Major South Korean companies, including Samsung, Hyundai, SK, Hanjin (the holding company that includes Hanjin Shipping and Korean Air), have succeeded their leadership within the family.

A 2015 survey by CEO Score found that the third and fourth generations of the top 30 Korean conglomerates became executives after an average of only 3 1/2 years with the company.

That practice is increasingly criticized, with accusations the companies are evading inheritance taxes and navigating illegally to gather shares to maintain management control.

"Unlike founders who had built their companies from scratch, the third-generation successors were born to a rich family and grew up like an aristocrat. They are the neo-high class of Korean society," political analyst Lee Jong-hoon told UPI.

"The owner families think they have a private ownership to the companies and regard themselves as a feudal king who is on top of others and thinks they can do anything they please."


The Cho family spectacle has sparked another wider social movement in which South Koreans are calling for an end to "gapjil," an abusive relationship that frequently occurs in unequal power relations. Assaults and verbal abuse from chaebol families on their employees are often cited as an example of the abuse of authority that reflects the hierarchical nature of the Korean society.

This has led some to boycott Korean Air.

"I decided not to take the Korean Air flights from now on in protest against the recent 'gapjil' incident by the owner family members," said Song Dong-suk, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul. "I've traveled on Korean Air flights on my business trips more than 100 times, but I won't fly with them next time because it will only do good for the owner family."

Hanjin Group was founded by the Cho sisters' grandfather and inherited by their father. It is the 14th-largest conglomerate in South Korea, valued at about 30 trillion won ($28 billion) as of May, according to the Fair Trade Commission's annual listing of Korean companies based on total assets.

Latest Headlines