Official is suspected of meddling in nut rage case

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Official is suspected of meddling in nut rage case

Prosecutors arrested a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport official in charge of questioning Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah on Wednesday amid allegations that he informed a Korean Air Lines (KAL) executive about the details of the investigation.

The 40-year-old Cho found herself at the center of controversy on Dec. 5 after she forced an Incheon-bound plane back to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to eject the cabin manager following a dispute about the way the macadamia nuts were served in first class.

The ministry official, 54-year-old Kim, was arrested in his office at the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board, near Gimpo International Airport. Prosecutors also seized his cell phone and documents and computers in his office and residence in Incheon.

The moves comes after the Transport Ministry faced criticism for carrying out a biased, shoddy initial investigation into the case, favoring Cho and KAL. In response, it launched its own internal inspection on Dec. 17 to look into how questioning was conducted.

The Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office also filed for a pre-trial arrest warrant for Cho, the former vice president of KAL, earlier that day for violating the Aviation Safety Law.

The prosecution said that Kim exchanged more than 30 phone calls and 10 text messages with the KAL executive in charge of the cabin crew, a 57-year-old surnamed Yeo, between Dec. 7 and 14, after Cho threw a fit in first class when the macadamia nuts were not presented to her liking.

Cho, the daughter of the head of Hanjin Group, which owns KAL, faces allegations that she was physically violent toward the cabin crew, endangered flight safety and changed the flight route by ordering the plane to turn back. She’s also accused of coercion and interference in the execution of duty.

Prosecutors found that Cho had pressured the head of the cabin service to request the pilot to return to the airport gate. KAL previously claimed that it was the pilot who made the decision to return to the gate.

While Cho has denied issuing orders for evidence related to the case to be destroyed, evidence has surfaced to implicate KAL officials in a cover-up.

An arrest warrant has already been sought for Yeo, who is suspected of trying to conceal and destroy evidence related to the Cho case.

According the Transport Ministry, 80 percent of Kim and Yeo’s phone calls and text messages were concentrated over two days between Dec. 8 and 9, immediately after KAL became the center of media scrutiny. Kim then deleted some of the text and phone call records he received from Yeo after the Transport Ministry began their investigation into the case.

Kim himself was a former head steward at KAL. After he left KAL in 2002, he joined the Transport Ministry, which contracted him as a specialist. Of the six Transport Ministry officials in charge of the investigation, two had previously worked for KAL, including Kim, who has been friendly with Yeo since his days at the airline.

However, Kim has denied allegations that he had let KAL executives meddle in how the ministry carried out the investigation, claiming the exchanges were simply “contact related to work.”

He said that he did not leak details of the probe to Yeo, nor give any advice.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]




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