The fall from grace of a Korean heiress

As daughter of Korean Air’s CEO gets arrested, many are not convinced the case will change behaviour of elite families.

It’s hard to overstate the extent of Cho Hyun-ah’s fall. Her grandfather founded one of the huge conglomerates, the Chaebols, that spurred South Korea’s incredible economic growth. Her father is his main heir, chairman of Hanjin Group, which includes Korean Air, where Cho herself was a Vice President. Cho is third-generation Chaebol, occupying the very highest rung of this ultra-competitive, hierarchical society.

She’s now in a detention centre, awaiting formal indictment on charges of violating aviation law, and coercion and interference in the execution of duty – essentially abuse of power in the workplace.

And all over a bag of macadamia nuts, served not on a plate, as she believed it should have been, but still in the bag.

The fact that such a petty matter is at the heart of this scandal accounts for much of the public scrutiny and outrage. Her fury at the senior crew member’s supposed faux pas resulted, according to reports, in his kneeling at her feet in the first-class cabin, begging forgiveness. At the same time, the pilot, allegedly under instructions from Cho, abandoned his planned take-off and returned to the terminal at JFK airport to turf the offending purser off the plane.

Elite families

It’s a distillation of the kind of power that South Korea’s elite families possess. A pilot should be the final arbiter of the safety of his plane and the people on board. Cabin crew have the power, these days, to physically restrain abusive passengers. Not in this case. Everyone working on that plane knew that to go against someone so senior could easily be a career-ending decision.

Chaebol family members are certainly no strangers to jail. But so far they’ve all been male, and their crimes have largely been financial. This one is different, because of the impression it gives of how they believe they’re entitled to behave, and treat others, when they think nobody is looking. One lawyer I spoke to says he gets reports every month of abuses of power in such companies. And he doesn’t expect this scandal to change that.

If Cho Hyun-ah’s sister’s actions are anything to go by, he’s probably right. Cho Hyun-min has apologised on Wednesday for a text message that she sent to her sister, well into this affair, vowing revenge on her behalf. It was sent on the same day that she was publicly apologising to her own employees at Korean Air, and pledging to change the firm’s corporate culture.

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