The matriarch behind Korea’s largest airline and her two daughters are facing arrest on smuggling charges, capping a tumultuous year for Korean Air and raising new questions over the airline’s future.
The Korea Customs Service has requested that prosecutors indict Lee Myung-hee, the wife of Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of the Hanjin Group, which controls the airline, for allegedly smuggling luxury products into South Korea on Korean Air flights for her personal use and without paying customs duties.
Similar accusations are being levelled against Cho Hyun-ah, who was a vice president of the airline when she assaulted a member of the crew aboard a KAL flight leaving New York in December 2014 after he failed to serve her nuts on a plate. Ms Cho, 44, was subsequently arrested in South Korea for the “nut rage incident” and served a five-month prison term.
Ms Cho’s younger sister, Cho Hyun-min, is also facing arrest in the smuggling investigation and made headlines in March after she was accused of assaulting an employee of an advertising agency during a meeting. She told investigators that she threw a glass against a wall as she felt her opinions about an advertisement filmed for the airline in the UK were being ignored.
The JoongAng Daily reported that the Incheon branch of the customs service has carried out an eight-month investigation into the alleged smuggling and claims that the family used KAL aircraft and employees to smuggle personal goods into South Korea.
Between April 2009 and May of this year, KAL aircraft and crew were used to smuggle in 1,061 luxury items – including tableware and food – with an estimated value of 150 million won (GBP106,000).
A further 132 items, including furniture and a number of bath tubs, were falsely described on paperwork as being the property of the airline but were instead delivered to the family, investigators said.
“The family has not been supportive of our investigation”, a customs official told the paper. “We spotted signs of the family trying to destroy evidence and they did not comply with our request for information”.
A conviction for smuggling can be punished with up to five years in prison in South Korea, or a fine of as much as 10 times the amount of tax that was evaded or the total cost of the goods that were smuggled into the country, whichever is larger.
Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of the airline, was indicted in October on charges of embezzling GBP13.8 million from company funds by awarding business contracts to other companies that were controlled by the family.