Thursday, January 08, 2015

Leftovers from 2014: The Nut Gate

Macademia advertisement poking fun at the "nut rage."

- This is probably not true, but TK will say it anyway: this may be the only news story that was driven mostly by the headline-maker's need for a pun. "Nut rage," "nut gate," "nutjob." We have seen every headline conceivable.

- In all seriousness, however, this was a really big deal in Korea, eliciting reactions that were almost disproportionate to the actual event. To be sure, what happened was definitely outrageous. But there have been more outrageous corporate misdeeds before--ones that actually caused loss of lives rather than a 20 minute flight delay. (One example here.) Yet this incident was the top-line headliner domestic news for two to three weeks straight. Why?

There may be some external factors. The prosecution has been blatantly leaking sensational investigative materials, possibly to help President Park Geun-hye's sagging approval rate. That Cho Hyeon-ah is a woman probably makes her a relatively easier figure to hate.

But TK thinks there is more: an interesting lesson about politics that is not obvious on its face. Perhaps nut gate was so resonant among Koreans because it was so easy to understand. Consider, for example, the Sewol incident. The ferry sinking had so many different angles and narratives that I had to devote four separate posts to the incident--which was still not enough to cover all the different aspects. To this day, Korean society remains divided over what lesson to be learned from the Sewol tragedy. 

In contrast, the nut gate? The entire event took less than 30 minutes with just three actors taking very simple actions. Yet the event managed hit a whole host of Korean society's sensitive spots: the chaebol oligarchy, nepotism within the chaebol, the contemptuous rich, humiliated employees, and so on and so forth. To TK, this is the real reason why the nut gate became such an issue in Korea. Never underestimate an event that gives an easy, neat narrative, no matter how trivial it is as a consequential matter.

- Although TK has a long history of complaining about American air carriers, he was never completely comfortable in Korean airlines--and this is why. The better service that Asian and Middle Eastern airline provides comes at a great psychic cost of the airlines' employees. TK is just fine with a service provider, but many airlines train their flight attendants to be servants.

- Of course, the real winners are the sellers of macadamia nuts. Koreans generally don't eat macadamia, although peanuts, walnuts and pine nuts are popular. In fact, most Koreans have never seen macadamia nuts, and have no idea how it tastes. (To this day, Koreans still refer to the incident as 땅콩 회항, i.e. "peanut return.") This scandal gave macadamia nuts publicity that no amount of money could have bought.

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  1. My favorite headline was "going nuts over nuts". In all seriousness, I am lucky enough to fly Korean Air business class (not first class) between NY and Incheon pretty often and I have to say it's pretty sweet. The attention to detail is what makes the difference. However, the KAL executive did overreach her bounds with her reaction. I hope they throw the book at her, just to make an example. What a spoiled brat. Keep up the good work, TK.

  2. As a big fan of your Sewol write up (*easily the most cogent, best researched explanation by any English news source), I wish you had given this incident more than a perfunctory summary.

    I understand that the underlying incident seems trivial (an 11 minute delay would be an unattainable dream for Delta), but I think that it reveals some of the rot in modern Korea in a very obvious way, and that a little more detail would go a long way. Regulatory capture, malfeasance, incompetent government response followed by witch hunt, the herd mentality of Korean news outlets, the lack of protection for whistleblowers/witnesses, undue influence of the chaebol on every day life, ad nauseum.

    The incident is an allegory that writes itself- most Koreans are just anonymous bodies in cattle class in an aluminum tube who have no influence on the conditions of their journey. Meanwhile a spoiled moron with an unwarranted tantrum is really calling the shots. In the aftermath, the chief witness is bought off (woo hoo! from jr. flight attendant to university professor), the chief flight attendant's testimony is rewarded with blacklisting and the end of his career, and nothing really changes for the Cho family. Maybe she'll get a short prison term, be released astonishingly early (or pardoned for contributions to the economy) and then ascend back into some other executive position in another tentacle of the hanjin conglomerate. And of course there's the garden variety Korean regulatory capture of former airline executives at regulatory agencies passing information to their erstwhile employers.


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