The matriarch of the Korean Air dynasty has been given a suspended jail sentence for assaulting her domestic staff, including physically hurting her chauffeur and throwing metal shears at her gardener.
Lee Myung-hee, the widow of the late Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and two years jail for 18 counts of abuse against nine of her employees at a court in Seoul Tuesday.
However, the sentence has been suspended for three years, meaning that if she doesn’t commit another crime in that time, she won’t go to prison.
The accusations against Lee rocked South Korea and prompted a nationwide debate on abuse of staff, particularly in family-run conglomerates known as chaebols, which dominate the country’s economy.
Her suspended jail sentence is likely to be a blow to labor rights activists, who hoped that Lee’s case could be a reckoning for chaebols, which have been linked with numerous accusations relating to the mistreatment of staff.
According to prosecutors, Lee’s charges included using profane language, shouting and physically hurting employees including her chauffeur, and physically assaulting her gardener by throwing plants and metal shears at him. The offenses occurred between 2011 and 2018, prosecutors said.
Korean Air said it would not comment on Lee’s sentence.
Lee is the third prominent member of the Korean Air dynasty to be accused of abusing staff.
In 2014, Lee’s daughter, Heather Cho — who was vice president of Korean Air at the time — demanded that a plane she was on return to its gate so a flight attendant who served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of a porcelain bowl could be removed.
She served five months of a one-year prison sentence after a South Korean court found her guilty of violating aviation law. After the flight attendant Park Chang-jin testified against Cho, he was demoted. In 2018, a court ruled that the demotion was legal, but awarded him $18,000 in damages for coercion and assault.
Cho’s sister, Emily, also drew public anger in 2018 over reports that she insulted an advertising executive and threw water in his face.
She apologized, saying what she did was “foolish.” Both sisters were fired from Korean Air by their father after the scandals.
The family have also faced accusations beyond abusing staff. Last year, both Heather Cho and Lee were given suspended jail sentences for smuggling luxury items via Korean Air planes, according to a report from national news wire Yonhap.
Cho Yang-ho’s son succeeded him as chairman of the South Korean carrier last year.
Lee and her daughters are not the only elite family accused of abusing their staff.
According to Kim Eun-jung, an economy and labor specialist with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy civic group, some chaebol owners run these major conglomerates as their own personal domains, with few external limits on their powers.
Kim said that past governments have enabled this pattern of abuse.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly promised to tackle problems with the chaebol system and root out gapjil — a Korean word for those in power who lord over their underlings — which he has described as a “leading workplace evil.”
Last year, a new law came into effect meaning that bosses who unfairly fire workers that complain of office bullying now face up to three years in prison, or a 30 million won ($25,464) fine.
In 2017, a survey by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea found that over 73% of respondents had experienced harassment in the past year, while a quarter experienced harassment more than once a week.
— Jake Kwon, Sophie Jeong and Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report.