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Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho dies at 70

A controversial figure, he personally drove Korean Air’s expansion
Apr 09,2019
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Cho Yang-ho in the cockpit of Korean Air’s first A380 in Toulouse, France, May 2011. [YONHAP]
Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho, 70, died at a hospital in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Cho, best known internationally as chairman of Korean Air for nearly 20 years from 1999 to 2019, was in the headlines just last month when he was ousted as chairman of the board of directors of the airline by shareholders at an annual general meeting.

According to Hanjin Group, Cho died due to a chronic pulmonary disease. He traveled to Los Angeles late last year to visit the group’s holdings there and remained there until he died.

Cho was born in 1949 in Incheon as the eldest son of Hanjin Group founder Cho Choong-hoon.

He joined Korean Air in 1974, working in a broad range of roles across the airline including in maintenance, IT and sales. He was appointed president of Korean Air in 1992 and became chairman of the airline in 1999. Cho became the chairman of Hanjin Group in 2003.

Under Cho’s leadership Korean Air grew to become a prestigious airline, but it wasn’t always that way. When Cho started gaining influence in Korean Air in the 1990s, the company was struggling to rebuild its image following a series of accidents.

Korean Air, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, started off with a single jet and seven prop aircraft. It has since expanded its fleet to 166 aircraft and now offers services to 111 cities in 43 countries - a considerable part of that expansion was done under Cho’s leadership. Its sales and assets have increased thousands of times over during the past five decades, according to the airline.

Outside Korea, Cho joined Delta Air Lines and Air France to make Korean Air one of the founding members of the Sky Team global alliance in June 2000. Sky Team is one of the world’s three main airline alliances, along with Star Alliance and OneWorld. The company has expanded links to America and Asia utilizing a joint venture partnership with Delta Air Lines signed in 2017.

Cho also served on the Board of Governors at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) from 1996 until his death. The board members exercise oversight on behalf of the organization’s membership. Cho was expected to chair the upcoming IATA meeting to be held for the first time in Seoul in June. The international meeting, which gathers the CEOs of some 280 airlines from across the world, will be hosted by Korean Air.

Although the Cho family may now be best known for a string of scandals that caused public outrage both in Korea and around the world, Cho himself wasn’t always seen as the face of corporate power abuse.

Despite his wealthy background and inherited position, Cho was known as being down to earth. Unlike other chaebol heads, Cho liked to travel on business trips without any staff and used to shrug off the trappings of wealth, choosing instead to stay at motels and eat fast food.

Cho has a reputation within Korean Air for independently setting in search of new flight destinations. Cho’s personal explorations were responsible for adding destinations like Halong Bay in Vietnam, Istanbul in Turkey and Male in the Maldives to Korean Air’s network.

The most famous story of Cho’s sole exploration - a story that has now become Korean Air lore - saw the chairman set out on his own on a 6,000-mile, 18-day road trip across the Americas in search of new flight destinations.

Outside the airline business, Cho served as president of the organizing committee for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games, but stepped down in 2016.

Cho also helped raise Korean Air’s brand image abroad through various charity events. Since 2007, Korean Air employees have annually visited the inner Mongolian desert to plant trees.

Cho’s biggest hobby was photography. He is known to have picked up the hobby after receiving a camera from his father, who also had a love for photography. Some of the photos Cho took were included in Korean Air commercials.

Despite the recent scandals surrounding his family, Cho is still respected as a leading figure in Korean industry.

“We express our deep condolences [on the death of] Chairman Cho Yang-ho, who was devoted to [Korea’s] economic development as the leader and pioneer of the Korean airline and distribution industries,” said the Federation of Korean Industries in a statement. “Thanks to [his efforts, Korea was] able to fortify the foundation of airline and distribution infrastructure, which led us to become an economic powerhouse standing sixth in terms of trade volume.”

The Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry recognized Cho’s contribution to the development of the airline and distribution businesses throughout his life, while the Korea Employers Federation (KEF) recognized Cho’s contribution to Korea’s economic growth and his role in hosting international events like the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games.

Cho is survived by his wife Lee Myung-hee, daughters Cho Hyun-ah and Cho Hyun-min, son Korean Air President Cho Won-tae and five grandchildren.

Cho Yang-ho

-1949: Born in Incheon

-1974: Entered Korean Air

-1992: Became president of Korean Air

-1996: Became vice chairman of Hanjin Group

-1999: Became chairman of Korean Air

-2003: Became chairman of Hanjin Group

-2014: Became chairman of Hanjin Shipping

-2014: Became president of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games

-2016: Resigned from his post at PyeongChang organizing committee

-2019: Ousted from Korean Air board


BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]