Korean Air heiress charged over 'nut rage' case
SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday, January 7, charged Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-Ah with causing a safety hazard on a flight following a "nut rage" incident that sparked a national uproar.
Cho, daughter of the airline's boss and herself a KAL executive at the time, ordered the chief purser off a December 5 New York-Seoul flight and compelled the taxiing plane to return to the terminal gate so he could disembark.
She had taken exception to being served macadamia nuts which she had not requested – and in a bag, not a bowl.
"The plane was forced to change its planned line of movement and the chief purser, who was on duty to ensure flight safety, had to leave the plane, causing safety hazards," senior prosecutor Kim Chang-Hee told journalists.
"Korean Air staff were mobilized in attempts to eliminate and tamper with evidence" by fabricating statements in order to get Cho off the hook, he said.
Cho is charged with forcing the flight to change its planned movements and using violence against crew members, both breaches of an aviation safety law, as well as obstructing official duties by leading the company's attempts to cover up the incident.
If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison but legal experts said she would likely draw a suspended jail sentence.
Cho, 40, was arrested and jailed on Tuesday, December 30, after a local court issued a warrant, citing "the gravity of the issue as well as the organized efforts to cover up" the case.
She has been sharing a cell in a Seoul detention centre.
Cho is one of three children of KAL boss Cho Yang-Ho, who is also the patriarch of business conglomerate and KAL's parent company Hanjin Group.
She has publicly apologized for the incident and resigned from all her posts at Korean Air and its affiliates.
Prosecutors also brought charges against a Korean Air executive surnamed Yeo for his alleged involvement in Korean Air's attempts to eliminate evidence.
A transportation ministry official who leaked details of a government probe into the case to Yeo was also indicted.
Prosecutors said they would investigate allegations that government officials got free upgrades to business-class seats from Korean Air.
The transport ministry has vowed to sanction the airline with a flight ban, most likely on the New York-Seoul route, that could last for up to a month, or with fines of up to $2 million.
Separately, the ministry has announced it would punish eight of its officials after admitting that their investigation into the affair was biased in favor of Cho and Korean Air.
In the public eye, the incident exemplified the authoritarian mindset of the family-run business conglomerates known as "chaebol", and their unhealthy connections with government officials.
"The case fueled seething public resentment against chaebols and government watchdogs who are enjoying their patronage instead of overseeing them,", said Sogang University sociology professor Chun Sang-Jin. – Rappler.com