South Korea removes president after corruption scandal

Park Geun-hye is the country’s first democratically elected leader to be ousted

South Korean president Park Geun-hye is to be permanently removed from office. Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

South Korean president Park Geun-hye is to be permanently removed from office. Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

 

President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has been formally removed from office after the country’s constitutional court unanimously upheld the parliament’s decision to impeach her after a corruption scandal.

Ms Park (65), the first woman to lead South Korea, becomes the country’s first democratically elected leader to be ousted, with an election expected on May 9th.

“The negative effects of the president’s actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large,” acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi said in a 20-minute ruling that was broadcast live on national television.

Anti-Park protesters, who had gathered since the early morning near the court building in central Seoul, were delighted by the unanimous result from the court’s eight justices. Some cinemas gave out free tickets and some restaurants didn’t charge for food and drinks.

“I was so nervous that I could not just stay home and watch TV,” a 34-year-old instructor who took part in the rally with her friend told the Yonhap news agency. “I feel that our democracy has made a big step forward.”

After the ruling, some of those gathered marched toward the presidential office after the ruling, chanting, “Arrest Park Geun-hye!” Ms Park is stripped of her presidential immunity from prosecution and she could face legal proceedings.

Two of Ms Park’s supporters died of their wounds after clashes with police outside the court after the decision was announced, and two more were in critical condition.

The political crisis has gripped the country for months. Ms Park was impeached on December 9th on charges of letting her friend of 40 years Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs.

She was accused of helping Ms Choi to put pressure on some of South Korea’s biggest industrial conglomerates, known as chaebol, to donate to two foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.

The court said she had “continuously” violated the law and constitution throughout her term.

Demonstrations

Ms Park was accused of soliciting bribes from the head of the Samsung Group for government favours, including backing a merger of two Samsung units in 2015 that was seen as supporting the succession of control over the country’s largest chaebol.

She was also accused of neglecting her duties during the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking that killed more than 300, although the constitutional court did not rule on that accusations.

Millions demonstrated every weekend on the streets calling for her to step down.

Ms Park’s removal as president comes at a time of major tensions on the Korean peninsula. The South’s bitter rival North Korea is pushing ahead with its nuclear programme, while relations with China are strained over the US missile-defence system, THAAD, currently being rolled out in South Korea.

A related corruption probe has targeted about 40 of the country’s most powerful figures, included Samsung Electronics’ heir-apparent Jay Y Lee. “History is moving forward with the great power of the people,” said former opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost to Ms Park in the 2012 election but has been leading presidential opinion polls with approval ratings of over 30 per cent.

Acting president and prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told the government to ensure the stable management of government affairs for “the unprecedented situation in our constitutional history”. He also convened a session of the National Security Council to call for full military readiness against possible provocations by North Korea.