The chaebol circus continues. On October 15, Cho Yang-ho, chairman of the Hanjin Group, which owns South Korea’s flag carrier Korean Air, was indicted on charges of embezzling $17.5 million from his firm and of using a scam to chisel $136 million out of the state insurance agency. An additional charge of evading inheritance taxes to the tune of $54 million was dropped because the statute of limitations had already expired.
Obviously, these chaebol CEOs aren’t paid well enough. They can’t get by without stealing everything that isn’t nailed down.
Cho’s name may be new to you. But it’s possible you’ve heard of the older of his two daughters, Cho Hyun-ah, who is known in the West as Heather Cho and who, not so long ago, was vice president of Korean Air. Okay, perhaps you don’t remember her name, but do the terms “nutgate” or “nut rage incident” ring a bell? On December 5, 2014, Heather (as we’ll call her to distinguish her from her dad) was a passenger on a Korean Air flight that was about to take off from JFK Airport when she ordered the plane back to the gate. Why? Because Heather, who at the time was still the airline’s VP, had been served macadamia nuts that were in a little bag instead of on a plate. This outrage, which was in accordance with airline procedure, let her to physically assault the chief of the plane’s cabin crew and to order him off the plane.
At first this episode was covered up by Korean Air. Airline employees, including the cabin-crew chief and a flight attendant who’d also been abused by Heather, were ordered to stay mum about it. Records of the incident were deleted. Authorities who were aware of the plane’s unorthodox return to the gate kept quiet about it. For a while there, a perfect cover-up seemed to have been put in place. But the story came to light anyway because a handful of passengers went to the media.
Heather’s tantrum made headlines around the world. It was especially big news in South Korea, unsurprisingly, where her conduct only served to reinforce the prevailing narrative about the arrogance and privilege of the chaebol princes and princesses and the readiness of authorities to cover up for them. Under pressure, Heather gave up one – but not all – of her titles at Korean Air (an absurd “solution” that seems typical of the bizarro world of the chaebols) and spent three months behind bars for having obstructed airline safety. Because of Heather’s temper, Korean Air ticket sales plummeted – while sales of macadamia nuts boomed.
That’s not all: it later emerged that the previous year, Heather had attacked a flight attendant because she didn’t like the ramen noodles she was served. And earlier this year, Heather’s younger sister, Cho Hyun-min, a.k.a. Emily Lee Cho, not to be outdone by Heather, was questioned over charges that she’d assault an employee of an ad agency working for Korean Air. (At the time, Emily was head of the airline’s marketing and advertising.) Obviously the whole family could use some treatment for anger management.
As noted, Cho Yang-ho was indicted on October 15. In November came news that Grace Holdings, the second-largest shareholder in Hanjin KAL, the holding firm that controls the Hanjin Group, was seeking to remove Cho from Hanjin’s board of directors. Moreover, there were indications that other shareholders might join forces with Grace.
In another country, this might not be such massive news. In South Korea, it’s an earthquake. To remove the head of a chaebol family from control of his empire is unheard of. Such a move would be nothing less than revolutionary. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how this pans out.