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[Editorial] Outrage over ‘nut rage’

Leadership positions should not be a birthright

An incident referred to as “nut rage” is an example of what can happen when a member of the founding family of a conglomerate becomes involved in business.

Former Korean Air vice-president Cho Hyun-ah, 40, has been making headlines since she ordered the pilot of a Korean Air plane, already on the runway, to return to the gate to let off the cabin crew chief at New York’s JFK Airport on Dec. 5.

Cho is alleged to have yelled and physically abused a flight attendant and a cabin manager over what she considered to be improper serving of macadamia nuts in the first class cabin. She ordered the airplane to return to the gate to eject the cabin manager.

In a television interview, Park Chang-jin, the cabin manager, said that Cho forced him and the flight attendant to kneel on the floor while she verbally and physically abused him. Cho pushed him against the cockpit door, yelling at him to tell the pilot to stop the plane and saying she wouldn’t let it take off, according to Park. He did not dare object to the owner’s daughter, Park said. Much of Park’s account has been corroborated by the only other passenger seated in the first class section that day.

If the incident itself were not beastly enough, Korean Air’s response has been abominable. In attempts that are akin to feudal servants trying to protect their lord’s daughter, Korean Air staff rallied to the rescue of Korean Air CEO Cho Yang-ho’s daughter.

The company issued a half-hearted apology that was more of an excuse for the younger Cho’s behavior than anything else. Company employees attempted for several days to coerce Park into providing a false statement to the investigators ― investigations are underway by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and prosecutors ― and taking the blame for the incident, Park said in a television interview. At one point, he was told that the investigators at the Transport Ministry were former Korean Air employees, Park claimed.

The first class passenger on that flight was also contacted by a Korean Air executive who asked her to say that she received due apologies from the company if she were to give interviews. She was told that she would be sent a model airplane and a calendar as a form of apology.

“Feudal” management practices, where the owning family of a company wields absolute, unbridled power and the employees’ primary goal is to protect the interests of the owning family, have no place in the highly competitive 21st century business environment.

The founders of Korea’s conglomerates were pioneers and are mostly respected for their achievements. However, there is a sense of resentment toward second and third generation owners due to their sense of entitlement and arrogance. The antibusiness sentiment that is often pointed out as hindering economic development could partly be attributed to the anti-chaebol feeling stemming from antipathy toward chaebol scions who make headlines with their unseemly behavior.

Leadership positions at the company founded by one’s parent or grandparent should not be a birthright. These positions need to be earned and should be filled by the most qualified person ― heir to the founder or not ― if chaebol are to stay competitive.
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