Korean Air heiress jailed in 'nut rage' case
THE daughter of Korean Air's chairman was jailed for one year yesterday over a now notorious "nut rage" incident that triggered an uproar over the behaviour of South Korea's elite business families.
The district court in Seoul convicted Cho Hyun Ah of violating aviation safety law by forcing a taxiing New York-Seoul Korean Air (KAL) plane to return to its departure gate on Dec 5.
Cho, who was the airline's executive vice-president at the time, had insisted on expelling the chief steward from the plane after taking exception to being served macadamia nuts in a bag, rather than a bowl.
The 40-year-old had treated the flight "as if it was her own private plane", Justice Oh Sung Woo said, adding that the case had become the object of international ridicule and "damaged the dignity" of the country.
"It is doubtful that the way the nuts were served was so wrong," Justice Oh added.
Cho was also convicted of assault on the cabin crew. The chief steward, Park Chang Jin, had testified that she had made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.
Prosecutors in the trial had asked for a three-year sentence, but Justice Oh said that he had taken into account that no lives had been jeopardised in the incident, as well as the fact that Cho had two young children and that her personal and professional reputation had been shattered.
Dismissing defence arguments to the contrary, the court ruled that an aircraft should be deemed "in flight" from the moment it begins to move and that Cho was therefore guilty of illegally altering the course of a plane.
She was acquitted of obstruction of justice charges related to allegations that she had pressured KAL staff to lie about the incident.
Another defendant, also a KAL executive, was convicted of forcing the flight crew to give false testimony and was jailed for eight months.
Although Cho had submitted letters to the court expressing repentance for her behaviour, Justice Oh questioned whether she was truly remorseful. Cho, who has been in custody since her arrest on Dec 30 and attended the court in a green prison outfit, stood silently throughout the ruling, her head bowed.
The case triggered a huge public backlash. Cho was seen as emblematic of a generation of spoilt and arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates or "chaebols" that dominate the South Korean economy.
In the past, chaebol owners have appeared to be above the law. Those convicted of gross fraud have either received lenient sentences or been granted pardons after just a short time in jail.