South Korea has been plunged into a period of political uncertainty after the President, Park Geun-hye, was forced out of office by a corruption scandal.
The country’s Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach Park over allegations of corruption and cronyism. She becomes the country’s first democratically elected leader to be forcibly removed.
Three people have died amid chaotic protests in the capital, Seoul. Seoul police spokesman Kim Tae-won told CNN Saturday that one protestor died in a local hospital where he was being treated. Two others were confirmed dead Friday by firefighters overseeing emergency medical services on the scene of the protests. Dozens of people were injured.
Thousands demonstrated after the unanimous decision by eight judges was read out down in a live broadcast that gripped the nation.
The decision brings the career of South Korea’s first female president to an inglorious end. It also comes at a pivotal moment for the region, as North Korea ramps up its nuclear weapons testing program.
Here are the main developments:
- Stripped of her immunity, Park is liable to prosecution.
- A snap presidential election will be held within 60 days.
- Turmoil comes as tensions rise with North Korea and China.
- Acting president warns North Korea may take advantage the uncertainty.
- The scandal has also entangled the acting head of Samsung.
Park was brought down by a corruption scandal that has dominated South Korean politics for months.
The President was accused of being unduly influenced by her longtime friend and adviser, Choi Soon-sil, who is on trial for abuse of power and fraud.
The Constitutional Court agreed with accusations that Park had abused her authority in helping Choi raise donations from companies for foundations she had set up.
“We announce the decision as the unanimous opinion of all judges. We dismiss the defendant President Park,” said Justice Lee Jung-mi.
An election for Park’s replacement must be held within 60 days, and an ad-hoc cabinet meeting will be held soon, a government official told CNN.
With Park’s ruling conservatives looking out of favor, it seems likely the country will turn to the left-wing opposition, which has signaled it would be likely to pursue a policy of engagement with the North. A left-wing government would also place into question the continued deployment in South Korea of a US missile defense system, which is bitterly opposed by China.
Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, of the opposition Democratic United Party, currently leads the opinion polls. Moon was defeated narrowly by Park in 2012.
Chaos on the streets
Soon after the court’s ruling, acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn appealed for unity, acknowledging that the conflict had polarized the nation. South Koreans on opposing sides saw each other as “enemies,” he said in a televised address. “Now is the time, however, for acceptance,” he said.
As the court’s decision was delivered, a group of around 100 Park supporters tried to break through police lines near the court, and a number fell and were injured. “We lost our liberty. We lost our Korea,” one protestor told CNN.
Anti-Park demonstrators also took the streets, some crying tears of joy and pumping fists in celebration, as applause rang out from the crowd. Many had camped out in the streets overnight in the cold.
Police had issued the highest level of emergency order possible in Seoul ahead of the announcement. About 21,000 officers were on standby for the protests, with 270 units mobilized.
Fall from grace
Park’s election in 2013 as the South Korea’s first female president was widely celebrated as a milestone. But her fumbled response to a ferry disaster tainted her rule, and allegations about her relationship to Choi emerged during 2016.
Choi was arrested after being accused of abusing her relationship with the President. She denies claims that she forced companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations she had established.
The case widened to ensnare Lee Jae-yong, the acting head of electronics giant Samsung.
Prosecutors allege that Lee pledged tens of millions of dollars to win favor with Park and secure government support for a merger that helped tighten his grip on the company. He is on trial for charges of bribery and corruption, which he denies.
In December, lawmakers voted to impeach Park by a vote of 234 to 56, stripping away her executive powers. Since then she has remained in the presidential palace, known as the Blue House, but has remained largely out of public view.
Friday’s ruling means Park loses the protection from prosecution she enjoyed as president and that she could now face a formal investigation.
Hwang, who became acting President when Park was impeached, warned that North Korea could exploit the political uncertainty.
South Korea’s political stability is crucial to the security of the region – it is a key buttress against North Korea, its provocative neighbor, and a major trading partner with the US and its Asian neighbors.
The US moved quickly to issue a reassuring statement, saying the two countries’ relationship would be unaffected.
“We will continue to work with Prime Minister Hwang for the remainder of his tenure as acting President, and we look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
North Korea’s official news agency noted that Park had lost her immunity, reporting that she would be investigated as a “common criminal.”