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Culture Of Abuse Found In South Korea’s Family Businesses

The physical and verbal abuse allegedly committed by Lee Myung-hee, matriarch of the Korean Air dynasty, between 2013 and 2017, against her staff is detailed in a new criminal indictment against Lee, released by a South Korean lawmaker this month.

Lee denies the charges against her, and she did not respond to requests for comment,

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.

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.

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