South Korea officials face punishment after their probe into 'nut rage' case deemed unfair

Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air Lines, Cho Yang-ho, appears in front of the media outside the offices of the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transpo
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air Lines, Cho Yang-ho, appears in front of the media outside the offices of the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, in Seoul on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's Transport Ministry vowed to punish eight of its officials Monday after admitting their investigation into a "nut rage" incident involving Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun Ah was unfair.

Ms Cho, 40, is facing arrest after being accused of forcing the chief purser off a Dec 5 New York-Seoul flight and of compelling the taxiing plane to return to the gate so he could disembark. She had taken exception to being served macadamia nuts she had not asked for - and in a bag, not a bowl, an incident that has caused a national uproar.

Speaking at an official briefing on Monday, Mr Shin Un Chul, a ministry auditor, said the investigation into the incident had been impaired due to the fact that a Korean Air staff member had been present, which may have intimidated witnesses.

A ministry investigator was also arrested last week for leaking details of the investigation to Korean Air officials. "We have found our fairness was impaired by an imprudent investigation," Mr Shin told reporters.

Four of the eight ministry officials who questioned Ms Cho will receive a warning, while the others will be referred to a disciplinary committee and could face dismissal, he said.

A court hearing is set for Tuesday to review an arrest warrant application for Ms Cho on charges including violation of the aviation safety law, coercion and interference in the execution of duty.

Ms Cho - one of three children of Korean Air boss Cho Yang Ho, the patriarch of business conglomerate Hanjin Group - has publicly apologised and resigned from all her posts in the organisation.

The Transport Ministry has vowed to sanction the airline with a flight ban, most likely on the New York-Seoul route, that could last for up to a month, or with fines of up to US$2 million (S$2.64 million).