SEOUL – In a historic and unanimous ruling Friday, South Korea’s Constitutional Court formally removed impeached President Park Geun-hye from office over a corruption scandal that has plunged the country into political turmoil.
It capped a stunning fall for Park, the country’s first female leader, who rode a wave of lingering conservative nostalgia for her late dictator father to victory in 2012, only to see her presidency crumble as millions of furious protesters filled the nation’s streets.
The ruling by the eight-member panel opens her up to possible criminal proceedings — prosecutors have already named her a criminal suspect — and makes her South Korea’s first leader to be removed since democracy replaced dictatorship in the late 1980s.
It also deepens South Korea’s political and security uncertainty as the country faces existential threats from North Korea, economic retaliation from a China furious about Seoul’s cooperation with the U.S. on an anti-missile system, and questions about the American commitment to the countries’ decades-long security alliance.
Park’s “acts of violating the constitution and law are a betrayal of the public trust,” acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said. “The benefits of protecting the constitution that can be earned by dismissing the defendant are overwhelmingly big. Hereupon, in a unanimous decision by the court panel, we issue a verdict: We dismiss the defendant, President Park Geun-hye.”
Park’s lawyer, Seo Seok-gu, called the verdict a “tragic decision” made under popular pressure and questioned the fairness of what he called a “kangaroo court.”
South Korea must now hold an election within two months to choose Park’s successor. Liberal Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, currently enjoys a comfortable lead in opinion surveys.
After the ruling, acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn called for stability and social order.
He also called for a maximum level of alert and readiness to cope with any provocations by North Korea.
Hwang ordered the Cabinet to speed up work to prepare for the presidential election.
Hwang later made a brief speech to the nation in which he offered an apology for the unprecedented removal of the president but also called on all South Koreans to respect the court’s decision.
Around 3,000 anti-Park demonstrators, mostly in their 20s to 40s, erupted with joy outside the court as the verdict was read out in a TV broadcast.
“This is a victory of democracy,” 27-year-old student Ahn Yo-Wool said, wiping tears from her cheek.
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 a hospital with a head injury and died. The circumstances of the second death were being investigated. Six people were injured, protest organizers said.
In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that Japan will “carefully keep watching developments” in South Korea because it is “a very important neighboring country that shares strategic purposes” with Japan.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a Lower House session that cooperation among Japan, South Korea and United States “is indispensable” in dealing with security threat confronting Japan, alluding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.Inada pointed out that South Korea, under the initiative of Park, finally concluded last year a bilateral pact with Japan to share and protect military intelligence.
Park’s impeachment could have a big impact on Japan’s relations with South Korea because Seoul is a key partner in dealing with threat from the recently accelerated nuclear and ballistic missile development of North Korea.
Moon is believed to be willing to adopt more conciliatory policies toward North Korea.
Moon has also called for revision of the 2015 agreement with Japan to settle all the diplomatic issues over “comfort women,” who were forced to work at Japanese wartime brothels during World War II.
If he tries to launch renegotiation of the 2015 deal, it could raise diplomatic tension with Japan, experts said.
But Kan Kimura, a noted expert on Korean affairs at Kobe University, said he doesn’t believe Moon would drastically raise tensions with Japan, although he is considered a left-leaning politician.
“The key is not whether the president is left or right. It’s whether his or her government is stable or not,” Kimura told The Japan Times, pointing out several South Korean presidents started bashing Japan to boost their popularity only after their domestic power base became critically weak.
Kimura pointed out Moon is currently very popular among voters and that his party is enjoying strong support from the public, too.