Lawyers for the eldest daughter of Korean Air’s chairman asked an appeal court Wednesday to overturn her conviction for disrupting a flight in a rage over macadamia nuts.
Cho Hyun-Ah was jailed for a year in February after a district court found her guilty of violating aviation safety by forcing a New York-Seoul Korean Air Lines (KAL) flight to return to its departure gate.
Crucially, the lower court ruled that an aircraft should be deemed “in flight” from the moment it begins to move.
So even though the KAL aircraft had barely left the gate when she forced it to return, Cho was found guilty of illegally altering the plane’s flight.
Her lawyer Yoo Seung-Nam took issue with that ruling in the Seoul High Court on Wednesday, arguing that the plane never reached the point where it could be said to be in flight.
“It’s hard to say that her act actually hindered security and the plane’s safety,” Yoo said. “She really had no intention to impede the plane’s safe flight.”
At the end of the hearing, Cho, who was dressed in a light-green prison outfit, stood and spoke to the packed courtroom, voicing remorse over her behaviour.
“On this occasion, I apologise again to the victims and beg for their forgiveness,” she said.
Cho, who was a KAL vice president in charge of in-flight service at the time of the December incident, had become enraged after a flight attendant served her some nuts in a bag rather than on a plate.
She lambasted the chief steward over the behaviour of his cabin crew and then insisted the plane return to the gate so he could be removed from the flight.
The 40-year-old’s actions invited overseas ridicule and domestic embarrassment.
Many South Koreans saw her behaviour as emblematic of a generation of spoilt and arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebols”, that dominate the national economy.
She was also convicted of assault on the cabin crew, with the chief steward, Park Chang-Jin, testifying that Cho had made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.
The flight attendant who served the now infamous nuts has since filed a civil lawsuit, alleging Cho attacked, threatened and screamed obscenities and then pressured her to cover up the incident by lying to government regulators.
At the February trial Cho was acquitted of obstruction of justice charges. The prosecution has appealed that decision and asked for her one-year prison term to be extended.
Prosecutors had initially sought a three-year sentence, but the district court judge took into account the fact that Cho had two young children and that her personal and professional reputation had been shattered.
In his argument to the High Court on Wednesday, prosecutor Lee Jong-Hyok questioned the sincerity of Cho’s apologies and said her abuse of her position merited a harsher sentence.
Lee also insisted that her acquittal for obstruction of justice should be reviewed, on the grounds that the transport ministry investigation into Cho’s alleged intimidation of witnesses had been ineffective.