The enraged heiresses of Korean Air have an entitlement problem

Most of the time.
Most of the time.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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In the annals of Korean business executives behaving badly, one company is making a repeat appearance.

South Korean police said today (April 13) that they are investigating allegations that Cho Hyun-min, an executive at Korean Air, assaulted the manager of an advertising firm by throwing a water bottle in his face and then kicked him out of a meeting, news agency Yonhap reported.

Cho is the sister of Cho Hyun-ah, or Heather Cho, the eldest daughter of the family—better known as the protagonist of the “nut rage” incident of 2014, when she ordered a flight from New York to Seoul to return to the gate, delaying takeoff, after lashing out at a flight attendant for serving her nuts in a bag instead of a bowl, and forcing both her and her supervisor to kneel before her. She was handed a suspended sentence in 2016 after spending five months in jail on charges of obstructing aviation safety. Her father also fired her from her roles at the company.

Heather’s sister, also known as Emily, vowed at the time that she would “take revenge” on behalf of her sister for the incident.

The allegations against Emily Cho recently surfaced on Blind, an app used in Korea where disgruntled employees post anonymously about work grievances. She apologized yesterday (April 12) in a Facebook post. A spokesperson for Korean Air told media (link in Korean) that a bottle was thrown at the wall, not at the advertising manager, because she was dissatisfied with the manager’s response to her question, and that Cho apologized to him.

Korean media are also labeling Cho’s outburst as another example of gapjil, meaning the abuse of power by someone against a person in a weaker position, a frequent occurrence in Korea’s deeply hierarchical society.

But Emily Cho’s tantrum also comes as Koreans become increasingly intolerant of the country’s biggest conglomerates, or chaebol, whose executives are often seen to act with impunity which often goes unpunished. The heir apparent of Samsung walked free after he was given a suspended sentence in February for his involvement in the massive bribery and influence peddling scandal that brought down former president Park Geun-hye last year. The chairman of Lotte Group, Shin Dong-bin, was sentenced to two-and-a-half-years in prison in February for his role in that scandal, a verdict that he is appealing. Last month, shareholders of two of Lotte’s subsidiaries approved the reappointment of Shin as a board director, a move that critics said (paywall) shows the scant regard the chaebol have for corporate governance.

Investors in Korean Air apparently found reason to be worried—the company’s shares plunged more than 6% yesterday, while its affiliate Jin Air fell 4%. Their share prices recovered today.

Heather Cho herself has also made a corporate comeback. She accompanied her father, Korean Air’s chairman, as he ran with the Olympic torch through Seoul in January ahead of the Winter Olympics. Last month, she was appointed president of the conglomerate’s hotels business. Meanwhile, as the Washington Post detailed in a recent interview, the chief flight attendant, whom Heather Cho took to task for allowing the nuts to have been served in a bag, said that he’s been demoted at work to doing menial tasks such as cleaning toilets, and is taking Korean Air to court. He posted this on Instagram in response to Emily Cho’s outburst: