South Korea’s National Assembly voted by a huge margin Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye over her role in a corruption and influencepeddling scandal, forcing her immediately to hand over the running of the country to a caretaker prime minister.
That means South Korea could be in for a long period of paralysis. The court has six months to rule, creating a power vacuum in South Korea at the same time the United States is going through its own presidential transition.
A total of 234 lawmakers voted in favor of impeachment Friday, well beyond the two-thirds majority, or 200 votes, that proponents of the motion needed to oust the president. Dozens of lawmakers from Park’s conservative Saenuri Party crossed the aisle to vote with the 171 opposition and independent lawmakers pushing for impeachment.
People who gathered in front of the National Assembly chanted, “We won, we won!” after the results were announced, while others danced and waved South Korean flags.
“I heard grave voices of the people and the National Assembly, and I sincerely hope this chaotic situation will be resolved soon,” Park told a cabinet meeting shortly after the vote. “I sincerely apologize to the people for causing such widespread chaos while our national security situation and the economy are going through a difficult time,” she said, citing problems ranging from bird flu to the challenge a cold winter would pose to the poor.
But the president, who last week said she would stand down if the assembly demanded it, reverted to her previous defiant stance.
“I will respond to the procedure of the Constitutional Court and the special prosecutors’ investigation with a calm and clear mind,” she told her ministers, according to remarks distributed by her office. She urged them to get back to work and minimize disruption to the country while the court deliberates.
Meanwhile, Park’s duties will fall to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, a political independent and former justice minister.
The vote was a landslide for the forces that want to oust Park. Only 56 lawmakers in the 300-seat assembly voted against impeachment.
“This result exceeded our expectations. It means the ruling Saenuri Party members have taken the citizens’ demands very seriously,” said Park Young-sun, a representative in the main opposition Minjoo, or Democratic, Party. “Now the National Assembly needs to calm down and try to take this opportunity to rebuild the nation.”
The scandal centers on allegations that the famously aloof Park — the country’s first female president and daughter of military strongman Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s — took advice from a secret confidante on a wide variety of topics, including North Korean policy and her wardrobe.
Prosecutors said that the confidante, Choi Soon-sil, a lifelong friend and daughter of a shadowy cult leader, used that relationship to enrich herself by at least $70 million and gain advantages for her family. Choi has been indicted on charges that include abuse of power and extortion, and is under detention.
Prosecutors have said the president appeared to have been an accomplice and want to question her about her role in the case, but she has refused. She is immune from prosecution while president but could be charged once she leaves office.
Public anger over the case is palpable. Hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating in central Seoul for weeks, calling on Park to step down, and her approval ratings have fallen to 5 percent. Protesters massed outside the National Assembly on Friday in support of the impeachment motion, and another protest is scheduled for Saturday.
Representatives in the Saenuri Party had no choice but to listen to the people and support the impeachment motion, said Kim Dong-choon, a professor of social sciences at Sungkonghoe University.
But the government could find itself hamstrung by the vote, Kim said. “Most of the cabinet members have been appointed by Park, so their legitimacy will be questioned by this impeachment. The government won’t be able to make important policy decisions, and the power will shift to the National Assembly.”
Park is only the second president to be impeached since South Korea democratized in 1987. Roh Moo-hyun, a progressive, was impeached in 2004 for minor election-law violations, but after deliberating for two months, the Constitutional Court overturned the motion. While it found that Roh had indeed breached the law, it ruled that the charges were not serious enough to warrant his removal.
The court now has 180 days to consider Park’s case, but experts doubt that it will take that long.
“As this is not a criminal court, one or two serious violations can justify Park’s dismissal,” said Chung Tae-ho, a law professor and expert on the constitution at Kyung Hee University. “The gravity of this case is expected to put pressure on the court to rule sooner than later, as it is important to remove uncertainty from the nation.”
But the process still could be complicated. Two justices are set to resign within the first three months of the year, and analysts say it is unlikely that the prime minister would act to replace them during a period of limbo. That would mean that six of the remaining seven judges would have to vote in favor of upholding the motion.
Hwang, the prime minister, also has been caught up in the furor engulfing the president.
As the scandal widened, Park said last month that she would replace Hwang with a senior official from Roh’s administration, a move intended both to clear the decks and to placate left-wing opposition parties. But those parties instead were incensed that they were not consulted, and Park was forced to withdraw her nominee, leaving Hwang in his post.
Kweon Seong-dong, chairman of the judiciary committee in the National Assembly, said that how soon the court could rule would depend on whether it decided to proceed on the facts it has or to wait for prosecutors and an independent counsel to finish their investigations.
“If the court considers there are enough reasons for the president to be impeached based on the current investigation findings, the court can rule in favor of upholding the impeachment motion,” he said. “But if the court decides to consider all of the violations, then it will have to deliberate on all of them.”
Kweon, a Saenuri lawmaker, said he did not think the decisive vote in the assembly would have an effect on the court, although he said the huge outpouring of public opinion on the scandal could influence the judges.
Seo reported from Seoul.