President Park Accepts Voices of the People, Awaits Impeachment Trial at Constitutional Court
SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- Parliament on Friday impeached President Park Geun-hye over a high-profile corruption scandal centering around her confidante, setting the stage for what could be a lengthy legal battle to her ouster amid growing fear of a leadership vacuum.
The National Assembly passed the impeachment motion overwhelmingly with approval from 234 lawmakers -- well above the two-thirds threshold of the 300-seat legislature. A total of 56 lawmakers voted against the motion with two abstaining.
Hours after the historic vote, Park was suspended, while Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn started his official duties as acting president by holding a Cabinet meeting and National Security Council (NSC) session.
Following the impeachment vote, both Hwang and Park strived to reassure the public that the government would do its best to minimize any fallout and cope with a series of economic and security challenges facing the nation.
"I accept the responsibilities as the acting president, which are stipulated in the Constitution, with a heavy heart, and will make all-out efforts to stably manage state affairs no matter how difficult the situation we are facing is," Hwang said during his address to the nation.
"I believe that under this grave situation, our state affairs must not be left adrift even for a moment," he added.
During the NSC session, Hwang stressed the need to "certainly" retaliate if North Korea engages in any provocations based on its "misjudgement," saying there must not be any loophole in national security.
"The responsibility that I am entrusted with is to try my best to prevent any national security problems by maintaining a robust readiness posture," he said.
Hwang also called for the South Korea-U.S. alliance to maintain strong deterrence against the wayward state, while warning North Korea against any propaganda activities intended to sow division among South Koreans.
Shortly before her suspension, Park convened a Cabinet meeting where she called on ministers to minimize the government vacuum and stabilize the economy.
Park also apologized to the nation, again saying she "seriously" accepted the voices of the citizens and parliament, and hoped national confusion sparked by the political scandal will settle down soon.
"From now on, I will calmly cope with the impeachment trial at the Constitutional Court and the independent counsel probe in accordance with the procedures set by the Constitution and laws," a solemn-looking Park said.
"I hope that with the prime minister as acting president playing a central role, each minister will do his or her utmost to minimize government vacuum in the economic and security realms by staying united with an extraordinary resolve," she added.
Since late October, the nation has been gripped by the scandal involving Park's longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who has been suspected of abusing her ties to the president to extort money and favors from local conglomerates.
Choi, who had neither any government title nor security clearance, is also alleged to have had unlawful access to advance drafts of presidential speeches and documents, some of which were classified as confidential.
Last month, state prosecutors cited Park as an accomplice in a series of the alleged wrongdoings carried out by Choi and her former aides. Park has denied all the allegations, vowing to establish her innocence through an independent counsel probe slated to begin later this month.
Park's fate as head of state will be determined by the Constitutional Court. Bae Bo-yoon, the spokesman for the court said it would carry out the impeachment trial in a "fair and swift manner." The court, which can review the case for up to 180 days, demanded Park make her case by Friday next week.
Opposition parties welcomed the overwhelming passage of the impeachment motion, calling it a victory for citizens. They also called on the Constitutional Court to promptly carry out its adjudication process.
The main opposition Democratic Party and the minor People's Party showed a cautious stance about demanding Park's immediate resignation, while the far-left Justice Party pressured the president to step down right away.
The Democratic Party, in particular, stressed the need to stabilize state affairs, proposing forming a parliament-government panel dedicated to minimizing any government vacuum. The move is seen as courting voters amid the prospects of an early presidential election next year, observers said.
"In order to bring the Republic of Korea back on track, we will focus on coping with the ramifications (from the scandal)," Youn Kwan-suk, the party spokesman, told reporters.
"As the main opposition party, we feel the deep responsibility to take care of people's livelihoods, security and the economy, and we will try to fulfill them," he added.
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers sought to quell public fears about any governance problems amid Park's suspension.
Defense Minister Han Min-koo ordered the military to tighten vigilance against possible North Korean provocations.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se ordered diplomats in overseas missions to stay focused on their duties and not be swayed by instability from the impeachment of the president.
The foreign ministry, in particular, invited the ambassadors of the United States, China, Japan and Russia to explain Seoul's policy towards Pyongyang and other diplomatic initiatives would remain unchanged after Park's impeachment.