SEOUL, South Korea — Korean Air’s chairman, whose leadership included scandals such as his daughter’s infamous incident of “nut rage,” has died due to illness, the company said Monday.
Cho Yang-ho had been indicted on multiple charges, including embezzlement and tax evasion, and his death came two weeks after shareholders voted to remove the 70-year-old from the company’s board over a series of scandals surrounding his family. Cho’s death will likely force a court to dismiss his criminal case.
The company said in a statement that Cho died at a hospital in Los Angeles but did not specify his illness or provide other details. Cho had remained chairman, which is a non-board role, even after shareholders ousted him from the board. He had expressed his intent to continue participating in management.
A senior Korean Air executive said Cho had been receiving treatment for an unspecified lung illness since late last year and that his condition “worsened rapidly” following the shareholder vote, apparently because of shock and stress. The executive didn’t want to be named, citing office rules.
Korean Air’s corporate flag and the South Korean flag were flown half-staff at the company’s headquarters in downtown Seoul.
Cho’s eldest daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, who was formerly the head of the airline’s cabin service, received worldwide notoriety in 2014 after she ordered a Korean Air passenger plane to return to a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York because she was angry that the crew served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a plate.
The incident, dubbed “nut rage,” generated international headlines and severely tarnished the Cho family’s image, while highlighting broader concerns about the sense of entitlement among the moneyed elite in South Korea.
Cho Hyun-ah was sentenced to one year in prison for violating aviation law but was released early when a higher-level court suspended the sentence.
The Cho family also faced intense criticism after company employees alleged they were subjected to mistreatment and tantrums.
Cho’s wife was summoned last May by South Korean police to question her about allegations that she abused and assaulted employees. Lee Myung-hee was accused of physically or verbally abusing more than 10 former and current employees of Korean Air’s parent company.
Cho’s younger daughter, Cho Hyun-min, also was investigated by state prosecutors for potential assault for allegedly hurling a cup of water during a business meeting. No charges were filed.
Before his reputation was hit by scandals, Cho Yang-ho, who led Korean Air since 1992, had been credited for overseeing the company’s growth into one of Asia’s biggest airlines. Korean Air, which began in 1969 with eight planes, now operates 166 aircraft with international flights to 111 cities in 43 countries.
Cho was also the chairman of the Hanjin Group, a global transportation conglomerate of dozens of companies that includes the airline. He was also was the co-chairman of the Korea-U.S. Business Council and vice chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries.
He was involved in the bidding process and preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea’s ski resort town of Pyeongchang and headed the Olympic organizing committee for two years before stepping down in 2016.
Cho is survived by his wife, a son, two daughters and five grandchildren.