Korean Air heiress apologises for ‘causing trouble’ at business meeting

Case brings fresh attention to abuse of power by mighty 'chaebol' conglomerates

Cho Hyun-min, a former Korean Air senior executive and the younger daughter of the airline’s chairman Cho Yang-ho, arriveing at a police station in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-min, whose elder sister was jailed in 2014 for an "air rage" tantrum over how macadamia nuts were served on a flight, has apologised for allegedly throwing a drink at an ad agency worker during a business meeting.

"I'm sorry for causing trouble," Ms Cho, who is also known as Emily Cho, said at a police station in Seoul, where she was questioned about the incident, her head bowed and appearing to fight back tears. Her apology was broadcast live on national TV.

The incident is the latest apparent example of poor behaviour by a member of the elite families that compose the lion’s share of South Korea’s industrial sector, and has prompted renewed calls for the chaebol to scale back their influence and keep their junior scions on a tighter leash.

Public impatience with the behaviour of chaebol families is growing, particularly with the way the younger generation are perceived as lording their privilege over other sectors of society, or “gapjil” – the abuse of power against a person in a weaker position.



Ms Cho (35), was in charge of marketing and advertising at Korean Air, the national flag carrier founded by her grandfather. She also apologised on her Facebook page.

“I have no words to say for my action that I should not have done under any circumstances.”

Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, her father, has sought to exercise damage control by announcing the resignation of his two daughters from their executive positions last month.

The Korea Herald reported that some employees were planning to stage a candlelight protest to call for the resignation of Mr Cho.

One petition that has gathered more than 50,000 signatures is calling for the word “Korean” to be removed from the airline’s name.

There have been various online postings accusing a wider circle of relatives in the family of bad behaviour. Footage posted online, then later broadcast on the local JTBC television network, showed a woman alleged to be Ms Cho’s mother, Lee Myung-hee, lashing out at employees.

Ms Cho's sister Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, who at the time was in charge of the airline's cabin service, was jailed in 2014 for a notorious "nut rage" incident, after she became enraged when a first-class flight attendant served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a dish. The plane was forced to return to the gate at New York's John F Kennedy Airport.

She was freed after an appeals court suspended her prison term for coercion and obstruction of business.

There are also concerns that links between the government and the chaebol are too close, as witnessed in the impeachment and jailing for 24 years of disgraced former president Park Geun-hye.

A probe exposed murky connections between the Seoul government and the chaebols.

In February, the heir to the giant Samsung conglomerate Lee Jae-yong was freed from jail after an appeals court in South Korea gave him a 2½ year suspended sentence for corruption.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing