Nicky Woolf and Gwyn Topham “Nut queen’ uproar highlights Korean anger over elite” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/12/nut-queen-korean-anger-elite-cho-hyun-ah
At first, the company tried to excuse the incident. They said that the jet had only just left the gate at JFK; and also claimed that as Cho was the executive in charge of cabin service it was only “natural” for her to discipline cabin crew who were not giving proper service.
The South Korean public was not convinced. Bloggers and the Korean press lambasted Cho for her arrogance, and took to social media to mock her for going “nuts”. But the response wasn’t just limited to jokes – it also gave voice to deep-rooted anger in South Korea.
While global interest was sparked by such trivial air rage, the story has focused attention once more on one of the most painful sores in the flesh of South Korean society: the overweening influence and brazen behaviour of a small number of “chaebol”*2 – vast and powerful family conglomerates that dominate the Korean economy, from airlines to famous electronics manufacturing brands and most things in between.
While Korean Air is part of international airline alliance SkyTeam, within the company, the family members exercise enormous control. In theory, no aeroplane captain should be ordered by a company executive to change course once the plane had taxied away from the gate, but the chaebol system helps explain the genuflection and servile deference shown by the steward, and the aircraft’s captain – employees who could not risk any defiance.
Even before she became known as the macadamia queen, or macadamia princess, following the “nut rage” incident, Cho was already a symbol for public dislike of the chaebol system. In 2013 she travelled to Hawaii to give birth, so that her children – twin boys – would have automatic US citizenship and avoid South Korea’s two-year compulsory military service.
In 2005, her brother Won-Tae Cho, who is another executive vice-president of the airline and several of the chaebol’s subsidiaries, was reportedly investigated by police for shoving an elderly woman who confronted him about his reckless driving; and in 2000 Cho’s father was convicted, along with her grandfather and uncle, of tax evasion.
In 2012, when the chaebol moved into chains of small neighbourhood stores, ordinary Koreans complained that even the smallest corners of commerce were choked off from independent business. The resulting outcry saw the likes of Samsung, and Hyundai Motor Groups decide to sell off their nascent chains of bakery stores.
“Nutgate” may have caused uproar, but it is unlikely to be the tipping point for the chaebol grip on power in the long term. In the meantime, however, there has been an unexpected consequence: daily sales of macadamia nuts have hit record highs.
*2:See Simon Mundy “South Korea: Sparks fly over the chaebol” http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9d84d488-5f90-11e4-8c27-00144feabdc0.html