Constitutional Court Rules to Impeach President Park... for not Upholding the Constitution
SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- The Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Friday, removing her from office after a 92-day leadership crisis and triggering a presidential election in the weeks to come.
The ruling, which was announced by the court's acting chief and televised live, made Park the nation's first democratically elected leader to be ousted. The 65-year-old daughter of a former president was impeached by parliament on Dec. 9 over a corruption and influence-peddling scandal centered on her close friend.
"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 delivering the ruling that lasted about 20 minutes.'
The National Assembly accused Park of letting her friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs, colluding with her to extort money from conglomerates, and neglecting her duties during a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300. Choi, who had no post in the government and no security clearance, allegedly edited drafts of Park's speeches, received classified documents from the presidential office and recommended the appointments of senior government officials.
The court acknowledged the illegality of Park's actions in letting Choi Soon-sil handle state affairs. It dismissed the other charges, such as her abuse of power in dismissing government officials, citing a lack of evidence. On Park's alleged inaction during the ferry sinking, Lee said it was not in the court's jurisdiction to determine whether she faithfully performed her duties.
In the ruling, approved by all eight justices, the court accused Park of "thoroughly hiding" Choi's involvement in government affairs, saying she not only denied the suspicions but was also critical of them.
Park abused her power to help her friend of 40 years establish foundations and "continuously" violated the law and Constitution throughout her term, it said. The foundations were allegedly used to collect "donations" from conglomerates including Samsung Group.
"Judging from the series of words and actions (Park has made), there is no will to defend the Constitution," Lee said. "The president's violations of the Constitution and the law amount to a betrayal of the people's trust and are grave actions that cannot be tolerated from the perspective of defending the Constitution."
By law, South Korea is required to hold an election to pick Park's successor within 60 days, and most expect it to take place on May 9.
There was no immediate comment from Park.
"Former President Park will stay at her official residence today," a presidential official told reporters on the condition of anonymity. "There will be no statement or message today either."
Park will not return to her private home in southern Seoul yet as the decades-old house needs repairs and security checks, the official said.
The former leader reportedly met with her chief of staff and other aides but said little other than "I have nothing to say."
Park's legal defense team questioned the integrity of the ruling, claiming it failed to explain whether the allegations were proven with facts.
"We hope there will be a strict evaluation in the future of the fact that the ruling did not explain the extent to which the factual relations were proven, interpreted criminal law violations as constitutional violations and listed grounds for impeachment that were not mentioned during the trial," Lee Joong-hwan, one of the attorneys, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn took steps to restore order in the wake of the highly charged scandal.
In a Cabinet meeting, he instructed ministers to ensure the stable management of state affairs, prevent further social divisions and make preparations for the upcoming presidential vote.
"(I) respect the Constitutional Court's decision and feel the heavy responsibility as the chief of the Cabinet for the unprecedented situation in our constitutional history," he said during the meeting.
He also convened a session of the National Security Council to call for full military readiness against possible provocations by North Korea, saying the communist nation could attempt to sow deeper social and political division here.
In an address to the nation, Hwang made an emphatic appeal for national unity.
"South Korea is a liberal democracy based on the rule of law, and we all have to respect the Constitutional Court's decision," he said.
Park, a daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, entered politics in 1998 after winning a parliamentary election in the southeastern city of Daegu. Her popularity was largely driven by nostalgia for her father, who ruled the country for 18 years after a military coup until his assassination in 1979.'
Park's Liberty Korea Party apologized to the nation as it accepted the court's decision.
"The Liberty Korea Party gave birth to the Park Geun-hye government. It was a ruling party and the partner of state affairs," said In Myung-jin, the party's interim head. "But we failed to fulfill our duty as the ruling party, and failed to protect the dignity and pride of South Korea, which has been built by the people."
The main opposition Democratic Party called for an immediate suspension of Park's policies, a recovery of constitutional values and normalization of state affairs.
Other parties showed mixed reactions.
The minor People's Party called the court's decision a victory by the people, while the Bareun Party, which spun off from the Liberty Korea Party in the wake of the scandal, called on political circles to accept the ruling for the sake of national unity.
The United States also reacted to the news, saying it will continue to be a "steadfast ally" of South Korea and "look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president."
Local pundits said the court's decision demonstrated that South Korea's democratic system is firmly in place.
"Today's decision is not a victory or loss for either side but a reaffirmation of constitutional values," said Song Ho-keun, a sociology professor at Seoul National University. "The Constitutional Court issued an order for all people to reflect on the meaning of constitutional values."
The nation has been sharply divided along ideological and generational lines since the scandal broke in October, pushing millions of people into the streets to rally for or against the impeachment.
Liberal politicians have tapped into voter disappointment with calls for a change of administration after nearly 10 years of conservative rule. Former opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, has been leading presidential opinion polls with approval ratings of over 30 percent.'
The conservative bloc, meanwhile, has so far failed to field a candidate with a double digit approval rating, with the exception of the acting president, who has yet to formally join the race.
"I think (the ruling) is a work symbolic of the consolidation and institutionalization of South Korea's democracy," Kang Won-taek, a politics professor of Seoul National University, said.
"This is an opportunity to root out and sever the past presidential system that allowed a president to do anything singlehandedly as well as corruption at high levels of government."
Kang also interpreted the judges' unanimous decision as a deliberate move to minimize social divisions following the ruling.
The president's supporters and detractors rallied outside the court and in nearby Gwanghwamun Square as police officers and police buses were deployed to prevent a possible clash.
The rallies turned violent after the ruling's announcement, and two pro-Park protesters died from their injuries while several others were wounded, police said.
The court's decision strips Park of her immunity from criminal prosecution, which will force her to undergo interrogation by prosecutors over her alleged crimes.
State prosecutors and an independent counsel launched successive investigations into the scandal, leading to the indictment of 30 people, including Choi and Samsung's de facto leader Lee Jae-yong, who allegedly gave or promised 43 billion won (US$37.2 million) worth of bribes to the former president and her friend.
Meanwhile, South Korea's financial market remained calm and the benchmark KOSPI index gained 6.29 points, or 0.30 percent, to close at 2,097.35. The local currency finished the day's trade at 1,157.40 against the U.S. dollar, up 0.7 won from the previous session.'