‘Nut Rage’ whistleblower sues Korean Air over demotion
Daughter of airline’s chairman was jailed in notorious tiff over macadamia nuts
Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-Ah surrounded by journalists after she was freed by a Seoul appeals court in May2015, following her jailing for disrupting a flight in a rage over macadamia nuts. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
The whistleblower who exposed the actions of the Korean Air chairman’s daughter who forced a plane to return to its gate in a tiff over macadamia nuts is suing her and the airline, accusing them of illegally demoting and ostracising him.
“My case illustrates how those who say no to economic power in South Korea come under a systematic attack from their organisation,” the whistleblower, Park Chang-jin, said during a news conference on Monday. “I hope my case will help our society to think about the dignity and rights of common workers.”
The 2014 episode, which became known as a case of “nut rage”, led to international condemnation and ridicule of the chairman’s daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, after she became angry that a first-class flight attendant served the nuts without first asking her, then in an unopened package rather than on a plate, according to court documents.
Ms Cho was vice-president at the company at the time. Mr Park, who was the chief flight attendant on the plane, had said that Ms Cho forced him and the junior attendant who served the nuts to apologise on their knees, “like slaves in a medieval era”. She used abusive language and threw documents at one of the flight attendants, prosecutors had said.
Still not satisfied, Ms Cho stopped the Korean Air plane while it was taxiing at Kennedy International Airport in New York and forced it to return to the gate so that Mr Park could be removed.
Mr Park took a leave of absence to recover from a psychological trauma. And when he returned to work in May of last year, Korean Air demoted him from cabin crew chief to flight attendant, citing what it called his poor English. He and his lawyers said the demotion was an illegal retaliation against his whistleblowing.
Korean Air denied the charge. “There has been no discrimination or unfairness against him,” the company said in a statement for this article. “We dealt with his case strictly according to our regulations.”
The episode set off outrage in South Korea, where many harbour deep misgivings about the perceived arrogance of the families who control the country’s major conglomerates. A Korean Air executive has been convicted of pressing the flight’s crew to lie to government investigators to protect Ms Cho.
Ms Cho, who was fired by her father after her scandal erupted, was sentenced to one year in prison in 2015 on charges of violating aviation safety laws. She was freed three month later after an appeals court judge reduced and suspended her prison term.
Lee Young-kee, who leads the Horuragi Foundation, an advocacy group for whistleblowers, said that Korean Air’s treatment of Mr Park was typical of the hardship faced by whistleblowers in South Korea. In the country’s rigidly hierarchical office culture, whistleblowers are commonly seen as betrayers, analysts said. After exposing corruption in their organisations, they are often demoted, ostracised, fired or harassed with lawsuits from managers.
South Koreans are demanding higher standards from their leaders and big companies after the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, who is on trial on charges of collecting bribes from big businesses. But the lack of protection for whistleblowers is cited as a major stumbling block. – New York Times