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Korean Air ‘nut rage’ heiress resurfaces as Olympics VIP while her former target scrubs toilets

Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, center,  is surrounded by journalists after being freed from jail early by an appeals court in Seoul in May 2015.
Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, center, is surrounded by journalists after being freed from jail early by an appeals court in Seoul in May 2015. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — Cho Hyun-ah, the Korean Air heiress who achieved global notoriety in the 2014 “nut rage” incident, returned to the public eye last month, accompanying her father as he ran with the Olympic torch when the relay passed through Seoul.

Korean Air is an official partner of the Winter Games, which open in PyeongChang on Friday, and Cho’s father is the chairman of the company — called “owner” in Korean because, although it is publicly listed, the company is in many ways still operated like a family business.

Running with her father and sister, Cho wore an official gray PyeongChang tracksuit and a smile. 

Park Chang-jin is also trying to put on a smile these days. He was the chief flight attendant on Korean Air Flight 86 from New York to Seoul the day of the fracas over nut service in the first-class cabin, and his life has not been the same since.

Former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, left prison in May 2015, after nearly five months behind bars for her outburst on a plane. (Video: Reuters)

“I loved my job, but then suddenly this incident with Ms. Cho happened,” Park said in an interview in Seoul. “I lost everything at that moment because someone who had power over me had this emotional outburst.” 

The unbridled power of big business conglomerates and the perceived gulf between the “owner” families and ordinary people have become a major issue in South Korea. Many complain that there is one set of rules for the rich and one for everyone else.

The most recent example: Lee Jae-yong, the heir to the Samsung empire, was released from prison Monday, just six months into a five-year term, even though the court upheld most of his bribery-related convictions.

He will participate in the Opening Ceremonies on Friday at the Winter Games, where Samsung is a major partner and official sponsor.

Samsung heir released from prison after appeal against bribery conviction

The progressive government elected last May had vowed to work to reduce economic and social disparities and limit some of the powers of conglomerates such as Korean Air and Samsung.

Both of the recent controversial cases involving “owner” families show just how hard achieving change is, said Jun Sung-in, a professor of economics at Hongik University in Seoul. 

“A change doesn’t come simply by changing political power,” he said. “It comes when continuous efforts are made across all parts of society for a long time.” 

For Park, the Korean Air flight attendant, a long time seems already to have passed.

It was Dec. 5, 2014, and Park, who had worked at Korean Air for many years, was asked to lead the staff on the flight. He was tapped because of his experience dealing with VIPs, he said. The VIP that day was Cho, then Korean Air’s vice president for cabin service.

When the flight attendant in first class served macadamia nuts to Cho in an unopened bag, rather than on a plate, the executive daughter became apoplectic. She apparently did not know that the guidelines had recently been changed to stipulate that open nuts should not be carried through the cabin in case passengers had severe allergies. 

She unleashed a torrent of abuse at the attendant, Kim Do-hee, and according to court documents insisted that Park kick her off the plane, which was still on the ground in New York. Park said he explained that the door was shut and they were starting to taxi, but Cho was not having it. 

She made Kim and Park apologize on their knees, then ordered the plane back to the gate and had them ejected. 

The incident ignited a firestorm in South Korea. Cho’s father, Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, called his daughter “foolish” and fired her. But the matter did not end there. She was charged with obstructing aviation safety and sentenced to a year in prison, although she was released after three months.

The Washington Post requested an interview with Cho through the company, but Korean Air spokesman Cho Hyun-mook said it would be “difficult” to arrange. 

South Korean airline heiress indicted over ‘nut rage’ on plane 

Although Cho no longer holds a position at the airline, her sister Emily has taken over many of her responsibilities. Emily Cho wrote in a text message to her sister shortly after the incident: “I’ll avenge you.” She admitted writing the message and publicly apologized.

To Park, it feels as if the company is hellbent on revenge.

In the interview, the immaculately dressed and groomed former chief flight attendant described a hostile work environment that he believes is designed to force him to resign.

Rumors spread about him, and people began to recognize him on the street, he said. Korean Air denies waging a character assassination campaign against him.

Park said his working conditions also deteriorated, with his superiors belittling him and asking him why he had returned to work or why he was not married.

 It took a toll on Park, who is 47 and has worked for Korean Air for 21 years. He began to find it difficult to put on his happy cabin-attendant face in such an environment.

“I have suffered physically and psychologically,” he said. He had to take a total of 18 months’ sick leave while he sought treatment, he said. He now takes antidepressants and often experiences anxiety and difficulty breathing. He wiped his eyes several times during the interview.

But he wanted to return to work. Park grew up on a small island off the coast of South Korea, where his father was a sailor who often sent postcards home from exotic places. That instilled in Park a desire to explore. 

He applied to work at Korean Air while he was a university student. “I knew I would be so good at this job because I’m a very friendly person and I like to help other people,” he said.

He loved his job. His mother, who still lives on the little island, was proud of him. “But now, my situation has brought shame on her and our whole family,” he said.

Why ‘nut rage’ is such a big deal in South Korea

When Park returned to work, he had to renew all his qualifications after more than a year off. He was repeatedly given failing grades on language tests — in Korean and in English — and began to suspect it was deliberate. He was assigned to economy class and often given the most menial tasks, including cleaning the toilets.  

The company says it has treated Park no differently from any other employee.

“There [is] no different work scope for juniors or seniors. As a result, seniors can be assigned [to] economy-class duties,” the Korean Air spokesman said. “Flight attendants’ duty can rotate from flight to flight.”

Park’s co-workers have advised him to give up.

Instead, he is suing Cho and Korean Air, alleging that they demoted him illegally and caused him to be ostracized at work. The case has been referred to mediation, he said. Korean Air declined to comment on an ongoing legal case.

Park said he does not expect to win but wants to make a point. “I want to fight for my rights, even though I am just a little guy up against a huge company,” he said in English. “I want our people to think about what’s wrong and what’s right.”

And with that, he was off to work the economy-class shift on a Korean Air flight to the Philippines.

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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