As discussed last night, in a historic ruling, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld an impeachment decision against President Park Geun-hye, removing her from office on Friday over a graft scandal involving the country's conglomerates at a time of rising tensions with North Korea and China. The ruling sparked protests from hundreds of her supporters, two of whom were killed in clashes with police outside the court.
Park becomes South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office, capping months of paralysis and turmoil over a corruption scandal that also landed the head of the Samsung conglomerate in jail. A snap presidential election will be held within 60 days. Her ouster caps a 5 month-long political scandal, whose verdict exposed fault lines in a country long divided by Cold War politics. The ruling to uphold parliament's Dec. 9 vote to impeach her marks a dramatic fall from grace of South Korea's first woman president and daughter of Cold War military dictator Park Chung-hee, both of whose parents were assassinated.
While Park's conservative supporters clashed with police outside the court, elsewhere, most people welcomed her ouster. A recent poll showed more than 70 percent supported her impeachment. Hundreds of thousands of people have for months been gathering at peaceful rallies in Seoul every weekend to call for her to step down.
On Friday, hundreds of Park's supporters, many of them elderly, tried to break through police barricades at the courthouse. Police said one 72-year-old man was taken to hospital with a head injury and died. The circumstances of the second death were being investigated. Six people were injured, protest organizers said. Police blocked the main thoroughfare running through downtown Seoul in anticipation of bigger protests.
Now-former president Park, who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, has refused to concede to the court's decision: according to Reuters she did not appear in court and a spokesman said she would not be making any comment nor would she leave the presidential Blue House residence on Friday. "For now, Park is not leaving the Blue House today," Blue House spokesman Kim Dong Jo told Reuters.
Park has now been officially stripped of her powers after parliament voted to impeach her but has remained in the president's official compound. The court's acting chief judge, Lee Jung-mi, said Park had violated the constitution and law "throughout her term", and despite the objections of parliament and the media, she had concealed the truth and cracked down on critics. Park, 65, no longer has immunity as president, and could now face criminal charges over bribery, extortion and abuse of power in connection with allegations of conspiring with her friend, Choi Soon-sil.
When Park eventually vacates the residence, she "will be making a tragic and untimely departure from the Blue House for the second time in her life" acording to Reuters: in 1979, having served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, she and her two siblings left the presidential compound after their father was killed. This time, she could end up in jail.
Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice in two court cases linked to the scandal, suggesting she is likely to be investigated.
North Korean state media wasted little time labeling Park a criminal. "She had one more year left as 'president' but, now she's been ousted, she will be investigated as a common criminal," the North's state KCNA news agency said shortly after the court decision.
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Meanwhile, markets celebrated the Court's decision: the Seoul market's benchmark KOSPI index and the Korean Won rose after the ruling. The prospect of a new president in the first half of this year instead of prolonged uncertainty will buoy domestic demand as well as the markets, said Trinh Nguyen, senior economist at Natixis in Hong Kong. "The hope is that this will allow the country to have a new leader that can address long-standing challenges such as labor market reforms and escalated geopolitical tensions," he said.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn was appointed acting president and will remain in that post until the election. He called on Park's supporters and opponents to put their differences aside to prevent deeper division. "It is time to accept, and close the conflict and confrontation we have suffered," Hwang said in a televised speech. A liberal presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, is leading in opinion polls to succeed Park, with 32 percent in one released on Friday. Hwang, who has not said whether he will seek the presidency, leads among conservatives, none of whom has more than single-digit poll ratings.