South Korea's constitutional court has voted unanimously, 8-0, to uphold the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye, removing her from office after a 92-day leadership crisis and triggering a presidential election in the weeks to come. A snap election my be held within 60 days.
The ruling, which was announced by the court's acting chief and televised live, made Park the nation's first democratically elected leader to be ousted. She was impeached by parliament on Dec. 9 on charges of letting a close friend meddle in state affairs, colluding with her to extort money from conglomerates, and neglecting her duties during a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300.
The court's decision strips Park of her immunity from criminal prosecution, which will force her to undergo interrogation by prosecutors over her alleged crimes.
President Park Geun-hye (R) and Lee Jung-mi, acting chief of the Constitutional Court
"The Constitutional Court's decision is equivalent to demanding legal accountability for President Park's failure to properly run state affairs," said Yang Seung-ham, honorary professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Now the public should accept the ruling."
The nation has been sharply divided along ideological and generational lines since the scandal broke in October, pushing millions of people into the streets to rally for or against the impeachment.
Park's problems began in October, when revelations emerged about the influence Park's confidante and adviser Choi Soon-sil had over the President. Choi is currently on trial for abuse of power and fraud. What followed later was 5 months of at times sheer chaos (see full timeline below) culminating with today's decision.
Local media and opposition parties had accused Choi of abusing her relationship with the president to force companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations she runs. She denies all charges against her.
Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans braved the brutally cold winter temperatures to take to the streets of Seoul and call for Park's ouster.
In a brief televised apology however, Park made it clear that she had no intentions of resigning. In December, the National Assembly voted 234 to 56 to impeach her.
Park was impeached in December after being accused of corruption. She is alleged to have let her close confidante Choi Soon Sil meddle in state affairs and conspired with her to extort money from major companies including Samsung.
Local pundits cited by Yonhap said the court's decision demonstrated that South Korea's democratic system is firmly in place. "We have undergone a process of resolving considerable conflict and differences in a predictable manner through legal procedures stipulated in the Constitution," said Park Myoung-kyu, a sociology professor at Seoul National University. "Now is the time to calm down and turn (the conflict) into policy debates and arguments."
The president's supporters and detractors rallied outside the court as police officers and police buses were deployed to prevent a possible clash.
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Below is the full timeline of the Park scandal:
24 - South Korean cable TV network JTBC reports that Park's longtime friend Choi edited some of the president's speeches. Prosecutors were already investigating claims that Choi had used her relationship with Park to raise funds for two foundations.
25 - Park apologizes on national television, saying Choi had access to dozens of presidential speeches before they were made public.
29 - Thousands of anti-government protesters gather in Seoul, calling for Park's resignation. Organizers estimate the crowd at 20,000; police put attendance at 9,000.
31 - As Choi arrives at the prosecutors' offices, following a two-month stay in Germany, she apologizes, saying she has committed "an unpardonable crime." Late that night, prosecutors place Choi in emergency detention.
1 - Prosecutors raid the offices of eight banks. Choi is suspected, among other things, of getting preferential treatment from local banks for loans.
2 - Park nominates a new prime minister, Kim Byong Joon, a member of an opposition party, in a bid to quell the controversy.
3 - A South Korean district court issues an arrest warrant for Choi. Kim, the prime minister-designate, says Park could be investigated, saying, "Everyone is equal before the law."
4 - Park again apologizes on TV, saying she will cooperate in the investigation.
5 - Thousands of protesters take to the streets of Seoul to demand Park's resignation. Organizers say about 100,000 people participate; police put the number at 40,000.
6 - Prosecutors issue warrants for two of Park's former aides, AnChong Bum and Jeong Ho Seong, who both resigned the previous week. Prosecutors continue to question Choi.
8 - Prosecutors search the offices of electronics giant Samsung. Park says she will withdraw her nominee for prime minister.
12 - The biggest protest yet takes place near the presidential palace in Seoul. Organizers say 500,000 people participate; police put the number at 190,000. Protests are planned in 40 other cities in South Korea and abroad.
13 - Prosecutors say they plan to question Park.
17 - South Korea's parliament passes a bill to open up an independent enquiry into Park's friendship with Choi. The legislation seeks 60 investigators and a special prosecutor to lead the case.
19 - Protestors again gather in Seoul.
20 - Prosecutors say Park is likely to have played a role in the corruption scandal but that they cannot indict her, as the country's constitution guarantees the president immunity "except in cases of insurrection or treason."
21 - The country's largest opposition party says it will take steps to begin impeachment proceedings against Park.
1 - South Korea's ruling party pushes for Park to resign in April, saying presidential elections planned for the end of 2017 could be brought forward to June.
2 - The country's three opposition parties say they will vote December 9 on impeachment, even if Park announces a plan to resign. Park plans to meet with members of her own ruling party over the weekend.
3 - Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators march within 100 metres of Park's official residence.
6 - Park says she won't immediately resign if impeached. Five thousand South Koreans file a lawsuit demanding compensation from Park for mental suffering caused by the scandal.
9 - Lawmakers including members of her own party vote to impeach Park
16 - In a 24-page document, Park's lawyers argue that there is no legal foundation for her removal.
19 - Park's influential friend Choi Soon Sil goes on trial on charges of abuse of authority and attempted fraud.
3 - The first open hearing in Park's impeachment trial is held. As expected, she does not attend.
17 - Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong is arrested over bribery allegations linked to the corruption scandal.
9 - Lee denies bribing Park and Choi on the first day of his trial
10 - The Constitional Court upholds Park's impeachment