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'Nut rage' and other affairs of nepotism

South Koreans debate their big, family-dominated businesses after an incident involving the daughter of Korean Air's chairman. From India to Saudi Arabia, clannish governance and ruling by bloodlines are under scrutiny.

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    Cho Hyun-ah, center, former vice president of Korean Air Lines, arrives at a prosecutors office in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 30. She had earlier resigned her job amid criticism over an incident in which she forced a flight to return over the way she was given a bag of nuts.
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A milestone in any nation’s history occurs when enough people admire leaders in business or government more for their qualities than their family name. South Korea may be at such a moment, along with a few other countries.

South Koreans have been outraged over an incident last month in which Cho Hyun-ah, the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air Lines Co., flew into a rage after being served macadamia nuts (in a bag rather than on a plate) aboard a plane leaving New York for Seoul. Ms. Cho has since lost her job as head of the airline’s in-flight service and faces charges. But the “nut rage incident,” as it’s been dubbed, created a welcome debate in South Korea about a lingering tolerance toward corporate nepotism – and the sense of entitlement and social inequality it can engender.

“It is foolish of the owners of big corporations to give their children any role in management unless they show at least a modicum of ability,” stated an editorial in the newspaper The Chosun Ilbo. “The only way to shed the image of rampant nepotism is to place ability before family ties.”

Many of South Korea’s major conglomerates (“chaebols”) – such as Samsung, Hyundai, and Hanjin Group (which includes Korean Air) – remain under the influence of the families of their founders. These corporate dynasties were useful decades ago when South Korea sought to become an industrial exporter. Yet as studies show worldwide, often the second or third generation of a family-run business fails in its leadership, especially in a globalized economy.

India, too, faces a similar moment in challenging the power of family clans, only in its case, the challenge comes from a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected last year.

After defeating the political party of the once-powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Mr. Modi has been campaigning against other dynasties in more than two dozen of India’s states. Often these families help further corruption, he points out, and they must be uprooted to bring India’s economy into the 21st century.

Criticizing political dynasties in a democracy, however, is not always easy. After all, voters may choose to trust a family name more than a lesser-known candidate. Americans may face this dilemma in the 2016 presidential race. Two relatives of recent presidents, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, appear to be in the running.

The Bush-Clinton candidacies would not scream nepotism. Yet the “brand” name and the celebrity of each would make it easier for them to raise money. And the family legacy, as with colleges that admit the children of alumni, plays into concerns about social inequities within the United States.

More typical of unmerited dynasties are monarchies or dictatorships, in which governance is often seen as a birthright. North Korea, suffering under its third Kim, is the best known example.

In Saudi Arabia, a royal crisis may be brewing in the House of Saud over the succession to  King Abdullah. Four years after the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East, the ruling princes may be more worried than ever about public opinion. Just as important, the world should be concerned about Saudi Arabia’s stability. Will this powerful oil exporter and the leader of the Arab fight against the Islamic State group descend into chaos if a succession battle breaks out?

As countries have advanced, most have curbed clannish rule in favor of governance that promotes equality, rule of law, and decisionmaking based on merit. Corporations, too, have largely moved away from inherited positions. While the daughters and sons of leaders can more easily learn how to govern, fewer people believe in traits passed down by bloodlines. A better genealogy, in other words, is no excuse to upbraid a flight attendant.

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