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Revolt from the bottom

Apr 25,2018
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Lee Hoon-beom
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In the Korean hierarchy, eul refers to an employee or contractor and gap is the employer or company paying for a service. Traditionally, the gap have wielded more power, but now, the eul are striking back with a vengeance, a phenomenon coinciding with Korea’s Me Too movement.

The eul are out to punish the conglomerate families who act as if they are feudal lords. They won’t settle for a hollow apology or makeshift removal of managing titles from misbehaving heirs. These voluntary internet trolls have embarked on a mission to collect reports of abuse and corruption in the family that owns Hanjin Group, the parent company of Korean Air.

An online chatroom dedicated to this very purpose has gathered over 1,000 cases. They have exposed the Cho family for smuggling luxury goods aboard Korean Air planes and using staff to avoid customs scrutiny and taxes. They have also exposed incidents of physical and verbal abuse, and the insolent ways of the matriarch.

The company’s employees, too, are not holding back. Never before have the labor unions been so united against the owner family, aside from layoffs or other management decisions.

The Cho family has pushed the public’s patience to the limit. They are not just overbearingly arrogant, but wicked. Taped records of their shrieking outbursts raise questions about their mental health. Their temper tantrums must have been commonplace enough to be recorded by staff. They might be pardoned, too, if only they had any knack in management to make up for their character flaws.

Korean Air has incurred losses for four straight years since 2013. Its accumulated deficit amounts to 2 trillion won ($1.85 billion). The eldest daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, made international headlines with her “nut rage” case, in which she made a Korean Air jet return to the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York just because she was unhappy with the way flight attendants served her macadamia nuts on Dec. 5, 2014.

Cho stepped down as vice president in disgrace after dealing a blow to the troubled airline’s reputation. Her absence did a favor to the company. Korean Air turned around and swung back to a net profit of 800 billion won last year.

Then her younger sister, Cho Hyun-min, did bigger damage to the company by throwing a cup of water at an ad agency executive. Was she taking revenge on behalf of her older sister? No one knows, but one thing is certain: Their existence is a threat to the company.

As someone who is contributing to my retirement, I cannot sit idly by. The National Pension Service is the second-largest shareholder of Hanjin KAL, the holding company of Hanjin Group. Its stock value has declined because of the trouble-making family, and this translates to losses for the pension service and people saving for retirement.

For nearly three decades, Korean Air has benefited from tax breaks meant to help airlines survive in the face of reduced market share and higher costs. It has been enjoying monopolistic benefits. The youngest daughter should have learned who had given her the silver spoon. She should have been modest toward the people who use her company planes and employees who have worked hard to restore the credibility of their service and operations, which was hurt by the scandal-ridden owner family.

The family might think, “Why all the fuss!,” when nobody actually got hurt from the water tantrum. They might be working harder to hunt down how their outbursts were leaked instead of working on self-reflection.

In 2014, after the nut rage incident, the company’s chairman did not keep his promise to set up a committee for better communication with employees. We can only imagine how much the former crew members have suffered because of her outburst.

The first thing the chairman did after his younger daughter caused trouble for the airline was build a soundproof wall in his room. That is why his public apology hardly sounds genuine. The wall might block out the shouting inside the chairman’s room, but without sincerity, no work can save the family’s name and leadership.

The chairman might think he can turn things around if he waits outs the controversy, but if he really wants to undo the damage, he must show determination.

The Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul once said, “Ignorant people in preppy clothes are more dangerous to America than oil embargoes.” The same applies to the Cho family.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 30