Forced to kneel and assaulted for forgetting to buy ginger. Kicked and spat on for being late. Drenched with water for driving too slowly. Struck on the forehead with a mop handle for seemingly no reason.
This is just some of the physical and verbal abuse allegedly committed by Lee Myung-hee, matriarch of the Korean Air dynasty, against her staff. The alleged abuse – which took place between 2013 and 2017 – is detailed in a new criminal indictment against Lee, released by a South Korean lawmaker this month.
Lee denies the charges against her, she did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Korean Air parent company Hanjin Group said: “We acknowledge that some of the assaults are factual and we are sorry.”
The charges against Lee follow the infamous “nut rage” incident, in which her daughter, Heather Cho, assaulted two Korean Air flight attendants who served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of a porcelain bowl, as their plane prepared to take off. One of the flight attendants, Park Chang-jin, said part of the airline’s employee training is dedicated to handling abuse.
Yet the family is by no means alone in facing accusations of abuse from staff. The scandals have sparked a nationwide debate on gapjil – a Korean word for those in power who lord over their underlings – within the elite families who dominate South Korea’s business and politics.
South Korea’s economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates called chaebols. Their boards are dominated by family members and close associates, meaning some owners run these major conglomerates as their own personal domains, said Kim Eun-jung, an economy and labor specialist with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy civic group.
A family problem
The lack of external limits on the power of those leading the chaebols has meant the treatment experienced by Park is not unique to Korean Air, Kim added.
Last October, a video emerged of Korea Future Technology CEO Yang Jin-ho repeatedly slapping a now-former employee while others sat at their computers as if nothing was happening. In December, another video showed Marker Group CEO Song Myung-bin repeatedly punching his employee.
Yang was indicted while Song is now facing charges. Both have apologized. But often CEOs don’t face legal punishment.
In the “nut rage” case, for instance, Heather Cho spent several months in prison after a court found her guilty of violating aviation law but she was ultimately acquitted of the more serious charge of altering a flight path and received a suspended sentence for assaulting Park. Kim blamed past governments for enabling this pattern of abuse.
“These chaebols were incubated and coddled by the governments. Atop this foundation, today’s emperor-like family regime has been created,” Kim said, adding that legal reform was needed to give more power to minority shareholders and create independent boards of directors.
The shocking charges filed against Lee, however, have rocked South Korea, and thrown a spotlight on chaebol abuse that workers are hoping could move the needle on employee treatment.
A petition on the South Korean government’s website has called to strip the word “Korean” from the airline’s name.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly promised to tackle problems with the chaebol system and root out gapjil, which he has described as a “leading workplace evil.”
House of horror
A few kilometers north of the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea’s head of state in Seoul, lies an imposing gray granite structure that is home to the Korean Air dynasty. It was where years of abuse by Lee took place, according to the indictment.
Her gardener, called victim C in the indictment, reported seven alleged assaults over three years. In one alleged incident, in the winter of 2013, Lee is accused of spitting in the victim’s face. The following spring, Lee allegedly threw a metal shear at the gardener for not removing weeds properly. And in 2016, the gardener hurt a knee falling from a 3 meter (10 foot) ladder after it was allegedly by kicked by Lee.
Separately, in September 2015, Lee allegedly threw a 60 centimeter (23 inch) ceramic vase at two staff. When the vase didn’t break, she allegedly said: “Bastard sons of bitches, quickly pick it up and bring it to me.” Once they handed her the vase, she allegedly threw it at them again – making sure it broke this time.
According to the indictment, in another case in December 2013, Lee allegedly threw a bundle of keys at an employee’s face as many as five times after accusing them of crookedly writing a label.
Some abuse was captured on camera and released to the public. In one video, Lee is seen yelling at a group of employees as they stand with their heads lowered. Lee pulls one by the arm and pushes her. Lee then grabs a stack of documents and throws it on the ground.
Representatives for Lee did not respond to a request for comment. She has previously denied the charges made against her.
Park, the flight attendant, said he had served Lee many times and was not surprised when he read the indictment against her.
“Lee is worse than how she is described in the indictment. You wonder how someone like her can exist in this world. It’s beyond imagination,” he said.
A culture of fear pervaded Korean Air, he said, caused by the vast power difference between employees and the family. This fear stopped employees from resisting abuse, he said.
“Because our livelihood hangs on it, we must keep our mouths shut,” Park said. After he testified against Lee’s daughter, Cho, during the “nut rage” incident, Park was demoted. Last year, a court ruled that demotion was legal, but awarded him $18,000 in damages for coercion and assault.
According to Park, Korean Air has produced a 70-page manual on how to serve the family. “They tell you at the training: when they hit you, pretend as if it didn’t happen and do not act perturbed,” he added.
Korean Air denies the existence of any such material, but Park said it helped him deal with the “nut rage” incident, during which he bore Cho’s abuse without putting up a defense.
“The mood in the company was that no matter how much they violate the ethics we must serve them as masters. In the company, we have all become voluntary slaves,” he said.
Park blamed the alleged culture of abuse within Korean Air on its chairman and CEO, Lee’s husband Cho Yang-ho. While Cho has not been accused of behaving as his wife and daughters allegedly have, Park claimed he cultivated an environment where loyalty to the family was prized above all else.
“The employees close their eyes and cover their ears and say, ‘Dear chairman, dear chairman, our dear heiress Cho, our dear heiress Cho,’” he said.
The perception of Cho within the company, Park said, was that confronting him with any bad news or disagreement would be met with an immediate and arbitrary punishment. “(Cho) would say on the spot, ‘demote them immediately,’ ‘make this manager a regular,’ ‘kick this person out of the department,’” Park said.
In a statement, Korean Air said the company could not comment on family matters. It said all disciplinary actions against employees were conducted through proper steps, and Cho Yang-ho was not involved in such decisions.
Cho did not respond to a request for comment.
Lee Myung-hee is the third prominent member of the Korean Air dynasty to be accused of abusing staff.
In April 2018, her youngest daughter Cho Hyun-min made headlines for allegedly throwing water at an advertising executive during a meeting. She was suspended from her job and later apologized but this appears to have been a tipping point in how much Korean Airline employees were willing to take.
After that incident, an anonymous chat group was created by Korean Air staff. The group encouraged employees to report any corruption, abuse and other potentially illegal activities committed by the Cho family.
Membership soon swelled into the thousands, inspiring administrators to take the movement to the streets.
The following month, 500 uniformed Korean Air employees protested in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun square, wearing Guy Fawkes-style masks to protect their identities.
Among those gathered was flight attendant Park, also wearing a mask. Initially, he was afraid no one would turn up, he said.
“(Seeing those people) taught me that I wasn’t the only person suffering. We may have been silent but we all shared one thought,” he said.
At one point a protester climbed on stage and said: “Let’s not stay silent anymore, let’s be proud,” before taking off his mask. After a moment of shock, Park took off his mask, too.
Since then, Park has transformed into a labor leader, a bold move in a country with a low union participation rate.
He co-founded the Korean Airline Employees Solidarity Labor Union (KESLU), which now has more than 400 members. However it has yet to be officially recognized by the company.
The formation of the union follows the establishment of Workplace Gapjil 119, an online space for victims of abuse to seek advice and assistance, in November 2017.
Designed to offer support to gapjil victims, who often report issues akin to post traumatic stress disorder, including spontaneous panic attacks, insomnia and inexplicable phobias, it received more than 22,000 requests for help in its first year alone.
Today it consults with 80 to 100 people a day, said founding member Park Jum-kyu. Some cases regard employees being forced to “perform in a company talent show, ” others involve “bullying, assault and humiliation,” he said.
He said victims often had no recourse – many are simply fired after reporting abuse.
As the public backlash mounts against Korean Air, and gapjil in general, the authorities are also putting pressure on the family.
Cho Yang-ho is under investigation for tax evasion, embezzlement, breach of duty and fraud. Lee Myung-hee is awaiting trial on multiple charges of assault, obstruction of duty, smuggling of luxury goods aboard Korean Air flights, and falsifying immigration documents to hire housekeepers from the Philippines. Their eldest daughter, Heather Cho, is also facing charges of smuggling and falsifying immigration documents.
Cho’s family attorney said he denied the charges against him and expected to be cleared at trial. Representatives for Lee Myung-hee and Heather Cho did not respond to requests for comment about the charges.
Park said the culture of fear remains – but he is determined to continue pushing back.
“If victims like me keep our voices up and if people see us survive, then wouldn’t there be more of us?” he said. “We liken ourselves to freedom fighters. We whisper to each other of the day of emancipation.”