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Korean Air Heiress Sentenced to a Year in Jail over 'Nut Rage' Incident

The guilty verdict for Cho Hyun-ah is another signal that the era of immunity for South Korea's dynastic business families is coming to an end.

by Jessica Lukjanow
Feb 12 2015, 3:20pm

Photo by Ahn Young-joon/AP

Former Korean Air heiress, Cho Hyun-ah, has been sentenced to a year-long jail sentence in a Seoul court today over the "nut rage" incident that took place at a New York airport in December. The case is being heralded as a landmark for South Korea's wealthy dynastic families who have long avoided severe jail terms.

Cho, 40, came under public criticism after a now notorious incident on a taxiing Korean Air flight at JFK International Airport on December 5, 2014. During the incident she abused staff after being served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than a bowl. She ended up forcing the plane to return to the terminal and ordered a flight attendant to leave the aircraft.

South Korean prosecutors originally recommended three years jail for the former executive. The court said Cho was guilty of forcing a flight to change its route, obstructing the flight's captain in the performance of his duties, and forcing a crew member off a plane.

The flight, which was already on the runway and nearing departure, had to return to the gate at the airport and was 11 minutes late as a result.

Cho is from a prominent and powerful South Korean family, and the decision is considered a watershed case against someone within the country's business elite. Indeed, during court hearings in January, Cho's lawyers argued that she shouldn't be subject to harsh punishment because of her position and her part in the family-run business.

Powerful family-run conglomerates known as "chaebols" dominate the economy, culture and political domain of Korean life. Young Koreans have become steadily more critical of these families, who they accuse of acting like nepotistic dynasties. And this verdict is now being seen as a landmark ruling in dealing with a class of wealthy business families who were once thought to be untouchable.

Cho's father, Cho Yang-Ho, is the chairman and CEO of the Hanjin Group, a company that was established by his grandfather 70 years ago. Hanjin Group owns Korea Air and Cho is a former executive of the company while her father is also its chairman.

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Giving evidence against her, Park Chang-jin, the chief steward on the aircraft, accused Cho of behaving "like a beast that found its prey, gritting its teeth as she became abusive, not listening to what I had to say at all."

Park said she did not have "an ounce of conscience, treating powerless people like myself like feudal slaves, forcing us to sacrifice."

During the trial, Cho admitted using force when she pushed the shoulder of one attendant, as well as throwing objects at her, but argued that the first class cabin staff had not done their job correctly, attracting further criticism for her lack of remorse over the issue.

She also said she believed the scenario could happen to anyone, and that it was a "devotion to (her) work" that lead her to such a rage during the incident.

Controversy also followed over how staff were told to handle the incident, with cabin crew members telling the court they had been pressured by Korean Air executives to cover up the episode and to lie to investigators.

Kim Do-Hee, the attendant who served the nuts, told investigators that she had made false statements out of fear of losing her job, and that she was not allowed to make any mention of "physical abuse or loud voices."

Yet the Cho verdict, along with other recent convictions, have added to a sense that the era of chaebol immunity is ending.

In October 2014, Hyun Jae-hyun, another chaebol figure was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for a fraudulent debt sale. It was reportedly the longest sentence handed out to a South Korean business person since 1997.

Presidential pardons, previously commonplace for chaebols, have not been given to any business leaders since August 2010. 

Follow Jessica Lukjanow on Twitter: @jlukjanow