Seoul (AFP) – Hundreds of angry Korean Air employees took to the streets in Seoul demanding the overthrow of the firm’s controversial controlling family Friday, after police failed to secure an arrest warrant for one daughter over allegations she sprayed juice over a business associate.
A series of scandals have put Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho and his family among the country’s most notorious super-wealthy and sparked a rare outburst of hostility from the firm’s employees.
Chanting “Cho family must step down!” around 400 Korean Air staff members, their families and other protesters gathered at Gwanghwamun in central Seoul late Friday.
The family first shot to international infamy in 2014, when Cho’s oldest daughter Cho Hyun-ah forced two Korean Air flight attendants to kneel and beg for forgiveness after she was served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than a bowl.
She ordered the Seoul-bound flight back to the gate so one of them could be ejected in an incident quickly dubbed “nut rage”.
Her younger sister Cho Hyun-min recently emerged into the unflattering limelight with her own tantrum — dubbed “water rage” — when she allegedly splashed fruit juice over a business associate.
The Gangseo police station in Seoul said Friday it was seeking an arrest warrant for Cho, who was accused of assault and obstruction of business.
But the request was dismissed by prosecutors.
The fruit juice accusation hit a nerve within the Korean Air workforce, prompting hundreds of staff members to join an online chat room to allege Cho family misdeeds against employees and domestic staff.
Loyalty is prized in South Korea and it is rare for employees of major conglomerates to publicly turn against company owners.
Many of the protesters on Friday were dressed in work uniforms or in all black, with their faces covered by sunglasses or Guy Fawkes masks for fear of being identified by their employer. Many declined to be interviewed by the media.
“There are many people from the company’s HR team here to keep an eye on what we do and say,” said one Korean Air pilot in uniform, but with his face covered by a mask.
“The owners are living in clover while the employees are suffering from extreme stress,” he added.
Many protesters carried signs saying “Cho, you are fired!” and “Cho Yang-ho out!”.
Lee Tae-hoon, a student, told AFP: “They were scared to speak up for a long time but have now found the collective courage to do so. I hope they can bring change.”
– Clan controversy –
Police said in a statement that Cho Hyun-min was “denying her criminal actions”, but “a review of the probe including testimonies by victims and witnesses as well as recorded audio files point to alleged crime”.
Korean Air had attempted to influence the victims, police added, and there were concerns Cho could destroy evidence if she was not detained.
The 34-year-old has apologised in front of journalists and TV cameras but denied any wrongdoing during police questioning.
Police said last week they also investigating allegations that the sisters’ mother Lee Myung-hee had abused employees verbally and physically.
The family are also accused of using Korean Air planes to smuggle luxury goods into the country to avoid import duties and customs authorities raided their residence and the airline’s headquarters last week.
Chairman Cho Yang-ho — who last year faced accusations of embezzling company funds, although prosecutors rejected a request for his arrest — apologised for the “immature” behaviour of his daughters, both of whom resigned from their executive posts.
Cho’s Hanjin is among the country’s 15 biggest business groups, and as well as Korean Air it owns logistics and transport firms, and has interests in information technology and hotels.
It used to own Hanjin Shipping, once one of the world’s biggest shipping firms, which was declared bankrupt last year.
At the protest in Seoul Park Chang-jin, the flight attendant berated by Cho’s older daughter for the macadamia nuts said the demonstrators were not trying to “harm”.
“We are here because we love Korean Air and to make it better,” said Park, who is seeking damages in a court battle against the firm, claiming he has faced discrimination since the incident.