The downfall of one of South Korea’s most powerful families may come down to short tempers. It all started with a simple packet of mixed nuts on an airline, then escalated with water thrown in a business meeting and could end with an assault on a builder by the family matriarch.

In the latest scandal to hit the family that controls Korean Air and one of the country’s largest conglomerates, police have barred Lee Myung-hee from leaving the country as they investigate claims of abuse against her.

Lee, 69, allegedly verbally and physically assaulted construction workers at a hotel under renovation. A video of the incident, which occurred in 2014, went viral in the wake of revelations that Lee’s daughter had thrown a water bottle at an employee during a meeting earlier this year. Lee is married to the chairman of the company, Cho Yang-Ho.

Police are also investigating the family for alleged smuggling of luxury goods and tax evasion.

Cho Hyun-Min at a police station in Seoul, where she was questioned about throwing water in the face of an advertising manager.



Cho Hyun-Min at a police station in Seoul, where she was questioned about throwing water in the face of an advertising manager. Photograph: Aflo/REX/Shutterstock

The video has sparked widespread backlash in a country where roughly 10 family-owned conglomerates control the majority of the economy. Samsung alone accounts for one fourth of the value of South Korea’s stock market. Many South Koreans complain rich families are not properly accountable and have become too powerful.

Samsung has been at the centre of several graft cases involving former South Korean presidents, and the company’s heir was sentenced to five years in jail. That sentence was later suspended, highlighting what many ordinary people see as preferential treatment for the country’s business elite.

The Cho family troubles started in 2014, when another of Lee’s daughter’s, Cho Hyun-ah, berated a flight attendant for how a packet of nuts was served. The incident, dubbed “nut rage”, made her infamous around the world, and she was eventually fired from her position in the family company and jailed for five months. Cho, who was head of the airline’s cabin service at the time, was appalled the snack was served in a bag instead of a bowl.

Then this year Cho’s younger sister, Cho Hyun-min – who is also known as Emily Cho – threw a cup of water in an advertising executive’s face during a meeting. She was not suspended until the outburst became public. Police are investigating the incident.

Cho Hyun-min resigned after the episode became public and her sister, who had been appointed to a new position, also quit. Police earlier sought an arrest warrant on suspicion of assault, but prosecutors denied the request.

“I apologise for my foolish behaviour,” Cho Hyun-min said. “It is my big fault that I could not control my emotions.”

The string of scandals related to Korean Air have sparked protests in Seoul last week, with hundreds gathering in Seoul wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding signs saying “No Mercy”. A second protest is scheduled for Friday.

The staff has said protests will continue until Cho Yang-Ho steps down. They have also pressed for greater transparency among top executives.

“We can’t put up with Cho family’s abuses anymore. Cho family, leave the company!” Park Chang-jin, a flight attendant, said at a candlelit vigil last week according to Reuters.

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