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.
A family problem
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.
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.