Spotlight: S. Korean president ousted as court upholds impeachment over influence-peddling scandal

SEOUL-- South Korean President Park Geun-hye was ousted as the country's head of state after the constitutional court upheld a motion to impeach the scandal-ridden leader on Friday.

The court's acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi read the ruling on the impeachment, broadcast live nationwide, saying it was the unanimous decision of eight justices.

The acting chief justice said the court had made all-out efforts for a fair judgment, hoping their decision would become a base to lead South Korea towards reconciliation and remedy by ending division and chaos.

Lee, who is scheduled to retire on Monday, dismissed a request for retrial from Park's legal team, which demanded a full court's judgement by nine justices. The former chief justice stepped down on Jan. 31 after his term terminated, leaving one vacancy and Lee was nominated as the acting chief justice.

She said there had been no procedural error in the eight-justice court's decision.

The court dismissed Park's violation of press freedom for lack of evidence, saying Park's inaction to the 2014 ferry disaster was not subject to the impeachment judgment. The ferry disaster claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high school students on a school trip to the Jeju Island.

However, the court ruled that Park allowed her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to meddle in state affairs from the shadows by leaking many of secret documents and influencing the appointment of government officials.

The ruling said Park also helped Choi seek personal gains by establishing two nonprofit foundations, which were set up with donations from major conglomerates.

South Koreans, who had called for Park's resignation, waved national flags and cheered outside the court in downtown Seoul after hearing the impeachment ruling.

A tearful mother and her daughter were among the anti-Park protesters who held placards that read "Impeachment is Victory of Candlelight Vigil" and "No THAAD."

Park's supporters, who rallied just hundreds of meters away on the street, remained silent and burst into tears following the verdict.

Some of the president's loyalists attempted to break into the court building and clashed with the police.

Local media reported that two of Park's supporters died of unidentified reasons during the rally. One of the dead is in his 70s.

Opinion polls have never changed in recent months, with almost eight out of 10 South Koreans demanding Park's ouster. About 15 percent people have insisted on the rejection or no decision on the impeachment.

By law, the court's ruling takes effect immediately after the reading. Park will be required to leave the presidential Blue House as she officially lost all of her presidential power as well as her title as the incumbent president.

President Park became the first South Korean leader to be forcibly removed from office through the impeachment. She was also the second president to be impeached in the country's constitutional history.

In March 2004, late President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached for his call on voters to support his own party in the parliamentary election of that year. About two months later, he was reinstated as the court ruled that his violation of an election law was not grave enough to boot him from office.

Park's impeachment is an unprecedented event in South Korea's modern history, so there is no specific law stipulating that the impeached leader must leave the Cheong Wa Dae by a given date.

Lee Jae-myung from the Minjoo Party, mayor of Seongnam city to the southeast of Seoul, said, "Today is a great day for people. Impeachment is the start to build a fair country free from corruption, foul play and privilege."

"Genuine unity will only be made possible when completely clearing away the legacy of old days," he added.

Cheong Wook-sik, director of local advocacy group Peace Network, believed the result was not surprising.

"President Park breached the constitution and fell short of people's expectations," he said.

Although the deployment of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) was not the main reason for Park's impeachment, it adversely affected South Korea's foreign policy, he added.

Cheong hoped the new government to be produced in the upcoming election could revoke the THAAD deployment plan and mend South Korea's ties with China.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that he respected the court's decision.

Only when people, especially those who protested against the impeachment, accepted the ruling, "can the rule of law, which is the basic value of the South Korean constitution, stand upright," Ban was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.

Since the Dec. 9 passage in the National Assembly of the impeachment bill, a total of 20 hearings had been held in the court. It took 92 days before the court's final decision, longer than 64 days required for the 2004 ruling on Roh's impeachment. During the 64-day period, only seven hearings were held in 2004.

Park will be subject to indictment and detention by prosecutors as she lost her presidential immunity following the court's decision.

The court's ruling said Park had rejected face-to-face interrogations by state and special prosecutors despite her earlier pledge to accept, mentioning Park's rejection of prosecutors' attempt to search the presidential Blue House.

Prosecutors have identified Park as an accomplice of her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, who is at the center of the corruption scandal that led to Park's impeachment, for multiple charges including bribery.

The scandal surfaced in late October, pushing millions of people into the streets to hold rival rallies for and against the impeachment every week. In its ruling the constitutional court said it hoped the ruling would end national division.

According to the constitution, an election to pick the next president will be held in 60 days and many expect it to fall on May 9.

Meanwhile, the South Korean military has been ordered to put on vigilance against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea given South Korea's current political situation, according to the Yonhap news agency.

U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington DC that the United States will continue to work with Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn for the remainder of his tenure as the acting president.

"We look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president," Toner said.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will continue to cooperate with South Korea after the country's Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of President Park.

International rating agency Moody's said the impeachment of Park has removed the political uncertainty in South Korea.

Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn convened a cabinet meeting shortly after the court's ruling.

Hwang will also hold a session of the National Security Council to discuss diplomatic and security issues.

Source: Philippines News Agency