SEOUL — South Korean President Park Geun-hye was removed from office Friday, as the country’s Constitutional Court unanimously upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her for her role in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.
Elections for a new president must now be held within 60 days, and polls point to a change in political direction for South Korea. Progressive candidate Moon Jae-in holds a strong lead over the conservatives who were once loyal to Park.
“The court dismisses President Park Geun-hye from her position,” said Lee Jung-mi, the acting chief justice, delivering the highly anticipated verdict Friday. “There is no other choice but to decide this verdict.”
Park did not make any comment on the decision and remained in the presidential Blue House on Friday afternoon. Hwang Kyo-ahn, the caretaker prime minister who is now acting president, declared South Korea to be in an “emergency” situation, saying he would try to ensure stability and assuage international concerns.
The impeachment marks a historic moment in a country that adopted democracy only 30 years ago. In sharp contrast with South Korea’s history of military coups, peaceful protests this time led to the removal of an elected leader. But supporters of Park wasted no time in venting their anger Friday morning, clashing with riot police and breaching cordons around the court. Two people were reported to have died during the protests.
The case has rocked South Korean society because of the sheer extent of the alleged corruption: Not only is the presidential Blue House implicated, but also the chiefs of leading companies such as Samsung, a high-profile prosecutor and the head of the national pension fund, the world’s third-largest.
The case comes at a time of high tensions in the region, with North Korea firing missiles and issuing threats, and an angry China retaliating against South Korea for hosting an American antimissile battery, which Beijing views as an effort to curtail China.
All eight justices on the Constitutional Court voted to uphold the impeachment motion against Park, which passed by an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly in December. The justices said the president had “continuously” violated the law and the constitution.
The court concluded that the president had helped her friend Choi Soon-sil extract bribes from South Korean conglomerates and had personally asked big business for donations. She had leaked confidential documents to Choi, tried to cover up her wrongdoing, then lied about it. The justices also chastised Park for refusing to answer questions about the case.
“The negative impact of the president’s legal violations is serious, and the benefits to defending the constitution by dismissing her from office are overwhelmingly large,” the acting chief justice said in reading out the court’s ruling.
Analysts had expected the impeachment decision.
“It was such an obvious case that there was no room for the court to rule other than impeaching the president,” said Kim Seon-taek, a professor of constitutional law at Korea University.
“Through the ‘Choi-gate’ investigation, we found serious violations of laws and evidence of meddling with law and order of the nation by both Choi Soon-sil and Park Geun-hye,” Kim said.
But Park’s lawyers vowed to fight on.
“I cannot accept today’s conclusion,” attorney Suh Suk-koo told reporters outside the court, saying they would consider appealing. “The biased Korean media, coupled with left-leaning and North Korean sympathizing labor unions, have led anti-Park protests to the streets of South Korea.”
Park’s supporters, mainly older, conservative Koreans, began protesting outside the court immediately after the decision, pushing through riot police and climbing over barricades around the court. Several people were seen unconscious on the ground.
The political scandal — extraordinary even by the standards of South Korea’s tumultuous democracy — revolves around Park and her lifelong friend, Choi, who held no official position but turned out to wield huge influence over the president, much more than her official advisers and ministers.
Choi is accused of extracting bribes from big business — Samsung alone is accused of planning to give her $37 million — in return for using her relationship with the president to ensure favorable treatment for the companies.
Special prosecutors tasked with investigating the case, known here as “Choi-gate,” said in a 101-page report released this week that they had found evidence that the president colluded with Choi. Park refused to be questioned by the special prosecutors.
Prosecutors have recommended 13 charges against Park, including abuse of power, coercion of donations and the sharing of state secrets. Park had immunity from prosecution while she was in office but has lost that now that she has been removed from the presidency.
The release of the prosecutors’ report coincided with the conclusion of the Constitutional Court’s 10-week-long deliberation on the impeachment case. Park declined to appear before the court, although she issued statements through her lawyers in which she had steadfastly denied wrongdoing.
“The case couldn’t have been any clearer,” said Chung Tae-ho of Kyung Hee University. “With this verdict, the Constitutional Court has sent an unequivocal warning to the people in power not to take advantage of their positions and seek personal gains.”
Park was suspended from office in December after weeks of enormous protests, with hundreds of thousands of people packing the streets of Seoul every Saturday, calling on her to resign or be impeached.
The outrage against her was triggered by revelations that the president, who seldom consulted with her ministers and official advisers, had been taking secret counsel on everything from North Korea policy to her wardrobe choices from a friend who held no official position.
Making matters worse, it turned out that Choi, the daughter of a shaman cult leader, had appeared to take advantage of her relationship with the president to enrich herself and win favors for her family.
She is accused of receiving about $70 million in bribes from big business groups. Park adamantly denied all the allegations.
Samsung’s de facto head, Lee Jae-yong, went on trial Thursday on charges including bribery, embezzlement and perjury, and Choi has been on trial for months.
Both strongly deny wrongdoing, although at a parliamentary hearing in December, Lee admitted that Samsung had given a $900,000 horse to Choi’s daughter, an Olympic equestrian hopeful.
Now that Park has been ousted permanently, new elections must be held within 60 days.
The conservative faction is in disarray, with the ruling party splitting into those who supported the president and those wanting to distance themselves from her.
The latest polls put Moon, a progressive from the Democratic Party who ran against Park in the last presidential election, in the lead, although he is facing a surprise primary challenge from An Hee-jung.
Moon has taken a much more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than the conservative governments that have held power since 2008, and his election would likely see the resumption of a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.
Park, 65, is the daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee, who served as president from 1963 to 1979 and oversaw South Korea’s transformation into an economic powerhouse by supporting conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai.
Park Geun-hye has long been considered a kind of princess figure in South Korea, and one with a traumatic past. While she was in college, her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, shot by a North Korean sympathizer. Even today, Park wears an old-fashioned hairstyle reminiscent of her mother’s.
She effectively became South Korea’s first lady at 22, and during this time became close to Choi Tae-min, the founder of a religious cult that incorporated elements of Christianity and Buddhism. He would “deliver messages” to Park from her dead mother, according to local reports. A U.S. Embassy cable noted that the local media described Choi as a “Korean Rasputin.”
Park also became close to Choi’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, and their friendship continued after both their fathers died.
Park’s father, still president, was killed in 1979 by his own spy chief, and Park disappeared from public view for almost two decades.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.