As Heather Cho publicly apologized on Friday, she stared at the ground and rarely raised her voice above a whisper. "I sincerely apologize for causing trouble to everyone," the former Korean Air vice president, dressed all in black, told a crowd of journalists. Her contrition was not just verbal: It had earlier been announced that Cho had not only quit her job with Korean Air but had also been removed from all other posts at affiliate companies.
Cho, also known by her Korean name Cho Hyun-ah, had suffered a remarkably swift fall from grace over the past week. Just last Friday, after she was served macadamia nuts the wrong way (in a bag, without asking) on a Korean Air flight in New York City, she forced the taxiing plane to return to the gate so that the chief flight attendant could be kicked off. The flight was slightly delayed as a result.
In any country, the story would have caused a stink. "Nut rage," as it was soon dubbed, seemed a truly remarkable tale of arrogance and entitlement, the story of one first-class passenger with powerful connections inconveniencing more than 200 others over a bag of nuts. But Cho's public humiliation, almost a week after the story broke, and the continuing debate over what exactly happened on the plane, suggests that in South Korea this is a bigger deal than at first glance.
On part of the problem for Cho is that she wasn't just a Korean Air executive when she was on that plane. She is also the daughter of Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho, and thus an important figure in the family that runs South Korea's national carrier. In a country where family business dynasties are rife and controversial, that was a huge factor: On Tuesday after the story began to go viral, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper published a damning editorial pointing to the privilege and arrogance among the tycoon families.
As Anna Fifield has written for The Washington Post, while North Korea's dynastic succession may get more attention, the way some South Korean conglomerates are run sometimes looks similar to Pyongyang. In sprawling, huge companies like Samsung, aging tycoons such as Lee Kun-hee are now prepping their younger generations to take over. “He is unquestionable,” one Samsung insider told The Post of the bosses in South Korea's "chaebol" conglomerates. “The word of the owner is like the word of the emperor, the word of God, and it can’t be refuted in any way.”
The power enjoyed by such families is a source of controversy. In the case of the Cho family, who had controlled Korean Air since they bought it from the government in 1969, there have been a variety of incidents that have led to a backlash. For example, Heather Cho was criticized for giving birth to her twin boys in Hawaii, thus giving them U.S. citizenship -- meaning they could avoid South Korea's mandatory military service. Cho's brother, Won-tae, was investigated by police for allegedly pushing an elderly woman in 2005. And Cho Yang-ho, their grandfather, was convicted of tax evasion in 2000.
After the "nut gate" incident, Korean Air's family leadership was, yet again, put under scrutiny. The Korea Times published an article that contrasted the company to German car manufacturer BMW, which is also under the partial ownership of one family.
"One way to explain Heather Cho's ill-considered deeds is that she is conscious of the Confucian tradition by which a male child inherits a family business. Her younger brother also works for the company. She has shown behavior typical of someone born with a silver spoon in their mouth," the English-language paper, part of the Hankook Ilbo group, wrote on Thursday. "In contrast, BMW recently named 49-year-old production executive Harald Krueger as the successor to CEO Norbert Reithofer, starting from May."
Cho's dramatic apology could also be taken as symptomatic of the South Korean attitude toward shame, or perhaps of "han," a Korean concept which roughly translates to a sense of burden or deep sorrow. Perhaps. But it's also tempting to see it as evidence of a company in "crisis PR" mode. According to Yonhap News, state prosecutors raided Korean Air's headquarters on Thursday to "safeguard" possible evidence, and there's now pressure for Cho Yang-ho to step down from his job as head of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games Organizing Committee.