SEOUL // South Korea’s Constitutional Court removed impeached President Park Geun-hye from office in a unanimous ruling on Friday over a corruption scandal that has plunged the country into political turmoil and worsened an already-serious national divide.
But Park would not be leaving will not leave the presidential residence, the Blue House, on Friday, her spokesman Kim Dong-jo said.
The disgraced president has a private residence in the affluent Gangnam district of the capital, Seoul, but her spokesman said she could not yet return to it “due to security reasons.”
The court’s decision capped a stunning fall for the country’s first female leader, who rode a wave of lingering conservative nostalgia for her late dictator father to victory in 2012, only to see her presidency crumble as millions of furious protesters filled the nation’s streets.
Park’s “acts of violating the constitution and law are a betrayal of the public trust,” acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said. “The benefits of protecting the constitution that can be earned by dismissing the defendant are overwhelmingly big. Hereupon, in a unanimous decision by the court panel, we issue a verdict: We dismiss the defendant, President Park Geun-hye.”
Two people died during protests that followed the ruling. Police and hospital officials said about 30 protesters and police officers were injured in the violent clashes near the court, which prompted the country’s acting head of state, prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, to plead for peace and urge Park’s angry supporters to move on.
The ruling opens Park up to possible criminal proceedings — prosecutors have already named her a criminal suspect — and makes her South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be removed from office since democracy replaced dictatorship in the late 1980s.
It also deepens South Korea’s political and security uncertainty as the country faces threats from North Korea, reported economic retaliation from a furious China over Seoul’s cooperation with the US. on an anti-missile system, and questions in Seoul about the new Trump administration’s commitment to the security alliance between the two countries.
The chief justice accused Park of colluding with longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to extort tens of millions of dollars from businesses and allowing Choi, a private citizen, to meddle in state affairs and see documents with state secrets. Those allegations were previously made by prosecutors, but Park has refused to submit to questioning, citing her immunity from prosecution as a sitting leader. That immunity has now gone.
Park’s lawyer, Seo Seok-gu, who had previously compared Park’s impeachment to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, called the verdict a “tragic decision” made under popular pressure and questioned the fairness of what he called a “kangaroo court.”
South Korea must now hold an election within two months to choose Park’s successor. Liberal Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, currently enjoys a comfortable lead in opinion polls.
Pre-verdict surveys showed that 70 to 80 per cent of South Koreans wanted the court to approve Park’s impeachment. But there are also concerns that her removal would further polarise the country and cause violence.
Thousands of people — both pro-Park supporters, many of them dressed in army-style fatigues and wearing red berets, and those who wanted Park gone — gathered around the Constitutional Court building and a huge public square in downtown Seoul.
A big television screen was set up near the court so people could watch the verdict live. Hundreds of police were on hand, wearing helmets with visors and black, hard-plastic breastplates and shin guards. The streets near the court were lined with police buses and barricades.
Some of Park’s supporters reacted with anger after the ruling, shouting and hitting police officers and reporters with plastic flag poles and steel ladders, and climbing on police buses. Anti-Park protesters celebrated by marching in the streets near the presidential Blue House, carrying flags, signs and an effigy of Park dressed in prison clothes and tied up with rope.
An official from the Seoul National University Hospital said that a man of 72, believed to be a Park supporter, died from head wounds after falling from the top of a police bus. Another pro-Park protester died in hospital.
In a televised speech, Mr Hwang said, “There will be people who feel they cannot understand or accept (the court ruling), but it’s now time to move on and end all conflict and standoff.”
Park’s parliamentary impeachment in December came after weeks of Saturday rallies that drew millions demanding her resignation. Overwhelmed by the biggest rallies in decades, the voices of Park supporters were at first largely ignored, but . But they regrouped and their rallies grew more vociferous.
Prosecutors have arrested and indicted several high-profile figures over the scandal, including Park’s confidante Choi, top Park administration officials and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong.
Since Park is no longer in power, prosecutors can summon, question and possibly arrest her. Her critics want to see Park appear on TV dressed in prison garb, handcuffed and bound like others involved in the scandal. But some analysts worry that could create a backlash by conservatives ahead of the presidential vote.
Mr Hwang will be in charge until a new president is elected, though it is uncertain he will run himself.
“Our country’s democracy had backslid in recent years,” Park Seung-jin, a 64-year-old former airport employee, said near the court. “I shed a lot of tears when I saw our young people come out to the streets to fight against the deep rooted evils, and I am happy for them now.”
. South Korea’s stocks and currency have remained resilient despite the crisis.
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The scandal exposed flaws in South Korea’s democracy after the country transitioned from dictatorship in 1987, according to Kim Sung-soo, professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul.
“Today’s ruling gives a good example that any leaders in the future should be punished when they abandoned their duty,” he said.
––* Associated Press