'Nut rage' trial of former Korean Air V-P Heather Cho opens

SEOUL (AFP) - The trial of Korean Air (KAL) heiress Cho Hyun Ah, charged with aviation safety violations following a now notorious "nut rage" incident that triggered a national uproar, opened on Monday.

Cho, also called Heather, who has been in custody since her formal arrest three weeks ago, was whisked into the western district court complex in Seoul by bus through a heavy media presence. Wearing a green prison uniform, Cho stood with her head lowered in the packed courtroom, answering preliminary questions in a near-whisper.

In their opening statements, Cho’s lawyers suggested the charges were based on “exaggerated statements” and argued that the safety violations were minor given that the plane was on the ground and had not even reached the runway.

The daughter of Korean Air chief executive Cho Yang Ho could face a maximum 10-year sentence if convicted of the aviation safety violations and a possible five years on additional charges of coercion and interference in the execution of duty. The charges all relate to an incident which saw Cho allegedly force the chief purser off a Dec 5 New York-Seoul KAL flight - compelling the taxiing plane to return to the gate so he could disembark.

Cho, who was a KAL vice-president at the time, had taken exception to being served macadamia nuts she had not asked for - and in a bag, not a bowl.

She has denied physically assaulting the chief steward Park Chang Jin, who says she made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.

The incident triggered a huge public backlash, which painted Cho as emblematic of a generation of spoiled, arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols", that dominate the South Korean economy.

Cho resigned from all her KAL posts and publicly apologised for her behaviour, which her father also criticised as a "foolish act".

The story generated international headlines and was seen as something of a national embarrassment, with South Korean media commentators suggesting Cho had shamed the country.

She was formally arrested on Dec 30 and has been detained in custody since then.

The family's image was further tarnished when prosecutors revealed that Cho's younger sister - also a senior KAL executive - had sent her a text message promising to take "revenge" on her behalf.

The sister later apologised for her remarks.

Cho appeared in court along with a company executive, who was indicted for evidence tampering, and a transport ministry official accused of leaking details of a government probe into the case.

The transport ministry plans to sanction KAL with a limited flight route ban that could last for up to a month, or with fines of up to US$2 million (S$2.65 million).

Separately, it has vowed to punish eight of its officials after admitting that their investigation into the affair was biased in favour of Cho and Korean Air.