You’ve all heard the story. The executive head of Korean Air service quality Cho Hyun-Ah was on a jet flying back from the US to Korea when she became upset at how the nuts were served in First Class where she was seated. No only upset, but she forced the chief flight attendant to bow down on the floor in apology and the captain to turn the jet around while it was taxi-ing for take-off to turf the flight attendant off the plane. His crime was to serve the nuts in the packet rather than in a dish.
As it turned out, it was the executive who had committed the crime. By returning the plane to the terminal, Korean Air had broken aviation law and were duly fined. The captain also seemed to forget he was in charge of the plane and not a passenger. The flight attendant seemed to forget where his dignity was and mostly the executive forgot where her humanity and considered behaviour was located. But that is hardly surprising once you learn a bit more about her.
For she was the daughter of the head of Korean Air which of course tells you how she got such a job. Korean Air is also owned by a huge conglomerate owned and run by one of the prominent families in Korea, known as the chaebols. It is these elite families who control much of Korean industry and wealth and usually benefitted from very cosy relationships with the former dictator Park Chun-Hee. He protected these companies economically and they became entrenched in the country running everything from industry to services. The famous Korean companies you know, Samsung, Hyundai and Kia etc were all granted privileged positions in return for kick backs.
Koreans have reacted two ways to this story. They have either laughed at the ridiculousness and with embarrassment or they have sought to think deeper about the role of privilege in Korea and the deference granted to such families. These positions are not in line with Korea’s modern, democratic outlook but with older, deeper cultural values.
The other part of the story I was to highlight is apology made by the President and his daughter after the event. These took place separately, a day apart. Firstly the father and President of the company came out in front of dozens of cameramen and journalist and made a short, prepared apology saying he had failed to raise his daughter correctly. His apology was to the nation, for Koreans traditionally believe in a form of brotherhood. This again is a throw back to the past. Present Korean are very individualistic and somewhat selfish.
The next day the daughter mumbled an apology, with hair across her ashen faced, bowed and then quickly retreated. The idea of shame is very powerful in Korea and Koreans are quite emotional people. It is common to see Koreans crying in the street or girlfriends wailing after boyfriends or boyfriends stood there in stunned silence when they get dropped. Cho was deemed to have shamed the company, family and country with her outburst. She lost her job and was removed from all posts within the company.
The contriteness of the apology is what is most important. Making a comeback from such an apology is unthinkable right now especially within a high-profile company. The ritualised public, performance of apology is deeply-humiliating and psychologically lasting. But she will be never thrown out the set. This familial connection and closeness is why in North Korea, when one member of the family is sent to prison camp, they send three generations too. Whole families are raised in these camps.
Korean media like a bit of gossip but it is mostly aimed at music and movie stars. It is usually trivial involving an affair or a bit of plastic surgery here and there. The elite families generally have their own way. It helps when you control some of the media of course but maybe not deeper questions can be publicly asked. Why did the spoilt brat of a chaebol family think she could get away with such petulant (and unprofessional) behaviour? Why did she take the nut insult with such insolence? How did she even have the role at her age? Why did the captain whither in the face of this woman and not understand his primary role?