Korea’s royal family disappeared from the pages of history in the early 20th century, but their successors – the founding family members of the chaebol, the giant conglomerates which dominate the national economy – continue to behave with regal entitlement.
Case in point: Cho Hyun-min, 35, a senior marketing executive at Korean Air, and the second daughter of Chairman Cho Yang-ho of Hanjin Group, which owns the national carrier.
She returned from abroad Sunday, after having briefly left the country as public anger surged over an incident last week, in which she allegedly hurled a cup of water at the manager of an ad agency while throwing a wobbly during a meeting. Intercepted at the airport by TV news crews, she apologized, saying: “I was foolish, I am sorry.”
Last Friday, police said they were investigating the incident, which may constitute assault. Cho denies throwing the water, but admits to shoving the manager. Korean Air released a note Cho had sent to the victim, apologizing. It seems unlikely that the victim, who reportedly ended up on the floor during Cho’s tantrum, will press charges.
In the wake of Cho’s paroxysm, recordings have also appeared on Korean digital media, of a harridan – purportedly Cho – shrieking foul-mouthed abuse at staff. Yet another allegation which has surfaced in local media is that Cho ordered the creation of a special committee to prepare her birthday celebrations in appropriate style.
As of Monday, some 50,000 people had signed a petition on the presidential website demanding the word “Korea” be stripped from the airline’s name. It is not the first time Cho family members have besmirched the national carrier’s image.
In 2014, Cho’s elder sister, Cho Hyun-ah – aka Heather Cho – sparked fury in Korea after a bizarre incident in New York. Ensconced in the first class cabin on a Korean Air flight, Cho, prior to take-off, went ballistic when she was served macadamia nuts in a bag, rather than on a platter. Outraged by this apparently appalling breach of first-class etiquette, she berated and abused a steward and ordered the flight crew to return the aircraft to the gate so the miscreant could be ejected.
She was handed a one-year prison term for interfering with air routing and was relieved of her position. But she walked after five months, following a successful appeal, and landed another managerial post at a group hotel company.
There was one positive outcome from the “nut rage” incident: macadamia nuts, previously difficult to find in Korea, are today sold in every convenience store.
Their brother, Cho Won-tae, has also been engaged in affrays: In 1999, he was embroiled in a hit-and-run incident, and in 2005, was investigated for an assault on a senior citizen.
And the younger Chos are not alone in their anger mismanagement. A resident of their neighborhood in northern Seoul, speaking to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, recalled when the family moved into their current residence.
“They were building this huge manse, and when they were putting the garden in, the matriarch would be out there expressing her views on how the work was going,” said the source. “She was clearly unhappy, as she was screaming at the top of her lungs – like a madwoman – for 10-20 minutes.
“It was non-stop – just shrieking – and it was not just once or twice,” he added. “This was a regular occurrence for several weeks.”
Abuse without accountability
In Korea’s notably hierarchical society, the abuse of sub-contractors, subordinates, juniors and assorted underlings is known as “gapjil.” While common across society, it seems particularly rampant in major corporations.
But while local media gleefully report the crimes and misdemeanors of chaebol royals – when they emerge, such as through online whistleblowing – critics say that much gets brushed under the carpet: Chaebol advertising spend is a critical component of newspaper revenues, and conglomerates allegedly leverage this power over newspapers’ editorial lines.
There is little public trust in judicial authorities’ willingness to sanction the business elite: Judges have a history of remarkable tolerance for the crimes and misdemeanors of chaebol royals.
Chaebol were massively implicated in the bribery scandal that led to the impeachment and downfall of President Park Geun-hye. But while Park was sentenced to 24 years in jail, and her crony Choi Soon-sil is serving 20, the key counter party in the corruption, Samsung’s de facto leader and Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong, was released after one year in detention with a suspended sentence.
Moreover, the repeated offenses committed by the royal families rarely have a long-term impact on conglomerate stock prices, partly because powerful institutional investors – such as the National Pension Service – do not raise a stink.
And the crimes committed by chaebol bosses are not limited to the white-collar variety. A particularly notorious case is that of Hanhwa Chairman Kim Seung-yoon.
After one of his sons was hurled out a Gangnam bar in 2007, an enraged Kim summoned his bodyguard detail. The bodyguards enlisted the service of mobsters and stormed the bar. The bar staff were kidnapped and taken to a location where they were tortured.
While several of the bodyguards and gangsters were jailed, Kim was sentenced was 200 hours of community service. Kim was later jailed on a separate charge of embezzlement and his sons have also subsequently had scrapes with the law after going on rampages.
“At one point it was quite routine for bosses to get physical, including female bosses; it has been a feature of Korean corporate culture for a long time,” said Mike Breen, author of “The New Koreans.”
“The idea of democracy is that leaders no longer get special treatment – one false move and we have them! – but people do not have that view about business,” Breen added. “This is partly because business officials are not elected, and partly because they are seen to be vital to the economy – and people in this country are sensitive to not damaging the economy.”