Park Geun-hye became on Friday, the first South Korean President to be removed from office after a decision was made by the country’s Constitutional Court over a series of scandals that involved her, certain friends of hers and top administration officials. Park is the first democratically elected President to be removed from office, since democracy replaced the military dictatorship in the late 1980’s.
The acting leader of the Constitutional Court, Lee Jung Mi, said that Park violated principles of democracy and the law. The impeachment motion, filed by lawmakers, accused Park of extortion, bribery, abuse of state power and leaking of government secrets. The opposition controlled parliament, voted for Park’s impeachment in December amid suspicions that Park and Choi Soon-Sil secretly manipulated state affairs and tried to filch from various companies. Choi was accused that, while in no government position, she had access to confidential documents and was influencing Park on various matters.
The ruling of the Constitutional Court stripped Park of her powers and immunity against prosecution. It also opens the fallen president up to possible criminal proceedings. Park had publicly apologised for trusting Choi, but had denied any legal wrongdoing. She had used her immunity to avoid talking to the prosecutors, a move that cost her the citizens’ trust.
The Court’s decision sparked riots, when angry Park supporters clashed with police. Two protesters died in Seoul and several were injured. Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn called the casualties regrettable and urged the nation for unity, during a national address on national television. Protesters that opposed Park, celebrated her removal from office by marching on the streets of the largest Korean cities. Anti-Park protests were a usual sight in the streets, in recent months, after the scandal broke out.
It’s not only Park and her friend Choi that face serious charges. Lee Jae-Yong, the de facto leader of Samsung Group, was arrested last month and remains in custody for his alleged role in the scandal. Lee, who is the son and heir of Samsung’s founder, is accused of bribery, paying ex-President Park and her friend Choi with $38m for political favours to smooth his succession and consolidate control over key group units. Before being arrested, Lee was invited to a parliamentary hearing, in which he is accused of lying about his role in the political scandal. Lee is in danger of receiving a life sentence for bribery but, in previous cases, the heads of large South Korean companies have received presidential pardons.
Park’s removal from presidency finds South Korea in a tensed situation. A few days ago, North Korea carried out missile tests. The tests were the North Korean answer to the joint military drills of the US and South Korean army. Pyongyang officials have repeatedly said that they take those drills as a preparation for war. Seoul also has to face the wrath of China that feels threatened by the cooperation of South Korea and the USA on the THAAD anti-missile system.
South Korea is waiting to see how the new Trump administration will face the North Korean problem. The Constitutional Court’s decision puts the country in an unstable position. Elections will be held within 60 days.