TOKYO — South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Thursday will begin its first hearings on the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, a case that could see the country’s first female president also become its first democratically elected president to be ousted from office.
The nine judges will hear opinions from representatives on both sides, after the National Assembly voted by a huge margin earlier this month to impeach Park over her role in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.
“The hearing will be open to the public if there are no other exceptional reasons,” Bae Bo-yoon, the court’s spokesman, told reporters in Seoul.
Park was automatically suspended when lawmakers approved the impeachment motion Dec. 9, with the prime minister taking over her duties. The court has 180 days from that date to decide whether to uphold the motion, forcing Park from office, or to overturn it.
Since South Korea democratized in 1987, the National Assembly has voted to impeach only one president — Roh Moo-hyun in 2004. The court declined to uphold the motion.
Although it agreed that Roh had committed minor breaches of election laws by openly voicing support for members of his party, contravening rules that the president should be impartial, the court decided after only two months that the offenses were not serious enough to warrant his removal from office.
But constitutional law experts say that Park’s case is not so clear-cut.
Prosecutors have accused her of being an accomplice in her friend’s alleged plan to extort money from big business groups, including Samsung and Lotte, and of providing her with classified information. Park has refused to be questioned by prosecutors.
The friend, Choi Soon-sil, is on trial on charges that include bribery, coercion and abuse of power. At her first court appearance Monday, Choi pleaded not guilty to all charges.
“The court must determine what is truth and what is mere suspicion,” said Lee Kyung-jae, Choi’s attorney.
Prosecutors said they had conducted 52 raids and put forward 827 pieces of evidence to support their case.
The scandal centers on allegations that Choi, a lifelong friend of Park’s and the daughter of a shadowy cult leader, was privy to classified information and that she used her relationship with the president to embezzle almost $70 million in corporate donations meant for charitable foundations.
The case has outraged South Koreans, who have been protesting in unprecedented numbers every weekend, because it involves the president directly. Previous corruption scandals have involved relatives of the president, but never the president.
But despite the protesters’ demands, Park refused to resign. As a result, politicians from both opposition parties and her own Saenuri party overwhelmingly supported the motion to impeach her.
Park has remained defiant, saying she would keep a “calm and clear mind” while the conservative-leaning court decides whether to uphold the legislature’s impeachment motion.
A majority of six judges is needed to approve the motion, but two are standing down before March and are unlikely to be replaced during the current political vacuum.
In a 24-page statement to the court released Sunday, Park’s attorneys said that the allegations were unproven and the president denied any involvement in the crimes that Choi has been charged with. Furthermore, they claimed that the alleged offenses were not serious enough to warrant impeachment.
“Even if there is evidence of offenses, none are so serious to justify an impeachment,” they said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Meanwhile, potential candidates have begun positioning themselves for the next presidential election, which would be held within 60 days of Park stepping down.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is a South Korean national and whose term expires at the end of this month, has given his clearest signal yet that he wants to run for the presidency.
“I have been musing about how and where I will dedicate myself,” Ban, a former foreign minister, said in New York during a final meeting with South Korean journalists.
“I will determine [whether to run for the presidency] after I meet citizens from various walks of life and listen to their opinions. What is most important is citizens’ thoughts,” he said, according to local reports.