Korean Air ‘nut rage’ heiress resurfaces as Olympics VIP while her former target scrubs toilets
After heiress Cho Hyun-ah was fired and jailed, her sister took over her job and vowed to ‘avenge’ her. Now, the flight attendant who angered Cho says he is being victimised again by powerful tormentors
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’s publicly listed, the company is in many ways still operated like a family business.
Running with her father and her sister, Cho wore an official grey Pyeongchang tracksuit and a smile on her face.
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 hasn’t been the same since, mocked by his bosses and made to scrub toilets in economy class.
“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 big 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 jail Monday, just six months into a five-year prison term, even though the court upheld most of his bribery-related convictions.
He will participate in the opening ceremony Friday at the Winter Games, where Samsung is a major partner and official Olympic sponsor.
The progressive government elected in May had vowed to work to reduce economic and social disparities and limit some of the powers of conglomerates like Korean Air and Samsung.
Both of the recent controversial cases involving “owner” families show just how hard change is, said Jun Sung-in, professor of economics at Hongik University.
“This is a reminder for us that 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, it feels as if a long time has already passed.
It was December 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 insisted that Park kick her off the plane, which was still on the ground in New York, according to court documents. Park said he explained that the door was shut and they were starting to taxi, but Cho wasn’t having it.
She made Kim and Park apologise on their knees in front of her, then ordered the plane back to the gate and had them both 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 it didn’t end there. She was charged with obstructing aviation safety and sentenced to a year in prison, although she was released after three months.
Korean Air spokesman Cho Hyun-mook said it would be “difficult” to arrange an interview with Cho Hyun-ah.
Although she no longer holds a position at the company, 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 apologised.
But to Park, it feels as if the company is indeed hell-bent 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.
Rumours spread about him and people began to recognise him on the street, he said. Korean Air strongly denies waging a character assassination campaign against him.
Park said his working conditions also deteriorated sharply, with his superiors belittling him and asking him why he had returned to work or why he wasn’t 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, describing how he had to take a total of 18 months’ sick leave while he sought hospital treatment. He is now taking antidepressants and often experiences agoraphobia 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 still at university. “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.
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 on purpose.
After having worked as chief flight attendant and in first class, he was assigned to economy class and 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 not to make a fuss and just give up.
But he is not giving up.
He is suing Cho and Korean Air, alleging that they have demoted him illegally and have led to his being ostracised at work. The case has been referred to mediation, he said. Korean Air declined to comment on an ongoing legal case.
Park said he doesn’t expect to win, but he 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.