Resentment has mounted so much in South Korea against what has come to be known as “gabjil,” high-handedness by the rich and powerful, that parliamentarians are proposing legislation to punish some of the worst abuses.
A bill to be presented in the national assembly this month is formally called the “Conglomerates Ethical Management Special Law” but has been nick-named the Cho Hyun-ah law.
Cho, also known as Heather Cho, is the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air Lines and was sentenced last week to a year in prison for an outburst on a Korean Air plane while on the ground in New York.
It was considered a severe sentence by some legal experts.
The bill proposes to ban members of the powerful business families known as chaebol from working at their companies for at least five years if convicted of a crime. In earlier cases, some high-profile offenders were pardoned, serving little or no jail time, although recently convicted chaebol executives have found it harder to avoid prison.
In February, the Supreme Court confirmed a four-year embezzlement sentence for SK Holdings Chairman Chey Tae-won, who has been in prison since January 2013, among the longest terms served by a chaebol boss.
In 2007, Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo was given a three-year jail term for fraud but the sentence was suspended in exchange for community service and a $1 billion charity donation as the court deemed he was too important to the economy to be jailed.
Cho, who has appealed against her sentence, was Korean Air's head of in-flight service at the time of the Dec 5 episode, which has come to be called the “nut rage” case. A court found she had violated the law by ordering the plane she was in to return to the gate after it started to taxi.
Cho had demanded the flight crew chief be expelled from the flight after she was served macadamia nuts in a bag, and not on a dish.
“I hope the recent case involving Cho has created the right environment to pull together consensus on this,” said ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker Kim Yong-nam, the sponsor of the bill. Another parliamentarian from an opposition party has proposed an amendment along similar lines.
“There have been calls to put in place a systematic tool to police heavy-handedness by chaebol family members, and stop them from being able to participate in management just because they are relatives,” Kim said in an interview.
Cho's lawyer Suh Chang-hee declined to comment on the proposed legislation.
Legislation's passage iffy
It is not clear whether the legislation will be approved by a parliament controlled by the business-friendly Saenuri Party.
Shin Seuk-hun, head of corporate policy at the Federation of Korean Industries, a lobby group for chaebol, said improving corporate transparency and ethical standards was positive, but the proposed legislation appeared to regard a corporation as a public interest group.
“It's almost like trying to supervise a company by getting the public involved and treating it as if it's a group of holy clergymen,” he said. “It seems excessive.”
A recent survey of 1,000 people found three-quarters considered heavy-handed conduct by those in superior positions to be a widespread problem in South Korea, with families of the chaebol topping the list as most likely to be responsible.
Bosses at work, doctors and professors were also cited as being unreasonably heavy handed, according to the survey by the Korea Press Foundation.
Incidents that in the past may have gone ignored have received prominent media coverage, including the January case of a department store clerk slapped by a female shopper who demanded a refund for clothes that had already been worn.
Even before the “nut rage” episode, a TV drama called “Incomplete Life,” which portrayed office workers bossed around by oppressive superiors, was a smash hit with viewers who identified with the characters.
"Gabjil,” or “being bossy,” has in recent years become a mocking catch-phrase in a traditionally top-down society where hierarchical roles extend to the workplace.
Kwon Oh-in of Citizens' Coalition of Economic Justice, a civic group, said income inequality that gradually deepened through the 1990s has quickened in recent years as policy measures aimed at correcting it misfired and chaebol continued to expand their economic dominance.
“Inconsistent policies have benefited chaebol and ordinary people have lost their jobs,” he said. “People are angrier.”
In the nut rage case, the flight's chief steward, Park Chang-jin, testified that Cho behaved “like a beast that found its prey,” treating “powerless people ... like feudal slaves.”
Kim, the ruling party legislator who is also a former prosecutor, said sentencing of powerful people was once dictated by the so-called “three-five” rule.
“It meant for chaebol cases like this, the ruling would be three year jail sentence suspended for five years: that was the unwritten code,” he said. “This case is important in that the code has been broken.”