(ATTN: ADDS new allegations in last 2 paras)
SEOUL, April 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's customs service said Wednesday that it has launched an internal probe to determine if its officials colluded with Korean Air Lines Co. as the agency moves to gather evidence of alleged smuggling by family members of the national flag carrier's chairman.
The move by the Korea Customs Service (KCS) comes amid allegations that family members of Korean Air chief Cho Yang-ho may have brought in luxury goods without paying duties. There have been suspicions that customs officials looked the other way in exchange for favors when they flew on Korean Air flights.
The customs service has opened a chat room on the country's leading chat app, Kakao Talk, as part of its efforts to gather evidence over allegations about the wrongdoings of Cho's family.
The Korea Customs Service said anyone can join the chat room by clicking on the link (open.kakao.com/o/g9vFEqL).
Local media reported that a wedding dress of Cho's eldest daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, was brought into the country without going through customs in 2010, citing an unidentified former Korean Air official.
The customs agency opened the chat room as Korean Air officials who tipped off the media about the family members' tax evasion are reportedly reluctant to cooperate with customs officials out of concern of possible reprisal or of being seen as colluding with the owning family.
"No one gave us decisive evidence in the chat room, and people who tipped us off did not come forward with real details," Ryoo Ha-sun, an official at the spokesman's office of the Korea Customs Service, said by phone from the central city of Daejeon.
Ryoo said it is not easy for the customs service to investigate alleged smuggling and tax evasion unless specific information such as dates and names are provided.
Customs officials recently raided Korean Air's headquarters as well as the homes of the owning family to secure evidence of the alleged smuggling and tax evasion.
Smuggling is an offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and fines up to 10 times the duties evaded.
The Korean Air owning family is facing mounting public criticism over a series of revelations of physical and verbal abuse by family members.
The chairman's youngest daughter, Hyun-min, is accused of throwing water in the face of an ad agency manager during a meeting last month.
She is the younger sister of Hyun-ah, who gained global notoriety for the "nut rage" incident in 2014. She forced a plane back to the boarding gate at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport because she was upset with the way her nuts were served -- in an unopened bag instead of on a plate.
The Korean Air chief recently offered a public apology and dismissed his two daughters from all of their corporate posts.
Still, the chairman's actions did not mitigate the public outrage as fresh allegations have surfaced over physical and verbal violence by his wife, Lee Myung-hee.
Lee, who is chairwoman of the nonprofit Ilwoo Foundation, allegedly tried to slap the face of a construction worker hired to remodel her Seoul residence in 2013 while forcing the worker to kneel. The worker avoided being hit by moving his head backward as Lee yelled at and kicked him.
She is also suspected of insulting an employee at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Incheon, which is affiliated with Hanjin Group, and later having the worker fired for not recognizing her and calling her an old woman.
Police have launched a preliminary investigation against Lee.
Also on Wednesday, two e-mails were disclosed by an anonymous Korean Air employee that appeared to show Lee ordering the airline's secretarial office to buy luxury goods overseas.
Titled "Forwarding of Madam's Instruction," one of the e-mails, dated 2009, apparently contains an order for Korean Air's overseas branch to buy two luxury items and send them to her. Lee also appeared to instruct Korean Air to send her a catalogue of luxury goods.
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