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In President Park's dramatic ouster, a test of South Korea's young democracy

modes of thought

The Constitutional Court ruled unanimously to remove President Park Geun-hye from office, following parliament's impeachment vote over corruption charges in December. The scandal threw South Korea into political turmoil. 

People attend a rally Friday in Seoul, South Korea, calling for the arrest of impeached President Park Geun-hye. The sign reads 'Park Geun-hye is impeached, We won.'
Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
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It was a striking end for South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Only six of the eight justices on the South Korea’s Constitutional Court needed to support the impeachment motion filed by lawmakers for her to be formally removed from office. When the court announced its ruling on Friday, it was unanimous, making her the country’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office. 

"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 at the hearing, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

The corruption scandal that led to Ms. Park’s ouster has plunged South Korea into political turmoil. It has coincided with a resurgence in the North’s nuclear program and an escalation in regional tensions over an advanced US antimissile system being deployed south of Seoul.

Still, the ruling on Friday offers a sign of how far South Korea’s young democracy has evolved since it was first established in the late 1980s. It follows months of peaceful protests that drew millions of people into the streets, as well as the legislative impeachment vote in December that suspended Park’s presidential powers.

South Korea's ruling and opposition parties both said they would accept the court’s decision ahead of its announcement on Friday in another sign of the country’s maturing political institutions.

“The court’s ruling shows that in any circumstance Korea's democracy is still solid, including the president's impeachment,” Lee Won-jae, a prominent economist and political commentator, says in an email from Seoul. “It’s historic because it tells us that the people have power superior to the president – the most powerful person in the country.”

Long legal case ahead

Park was South Korea’s first female president and the daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee. Nostalgia for her father’s conservative rule led her a sweeping electoral victory in 2012.

In the aftermath of her dramatic downfall, political power is expected to shift in the direction of the liberal opposition. Among the opposition’s major policy proposals are its calls for more engagement with North Korea and defusing tensions with neighboring China.

The court’s ruling on Friday, which was met with protests by hundreds of Park's supporters, brought an end to Park’s nearly five years in power. But the corruption case is far from over. Prosecutors have accused her of extortion, bribery, and abuse of power in connection with allegations that she conspired with a confidante to extort tens of millions of dollars from large companies. Park has maintained her innocence throughout.

Prosecutors have already identified Park as a criminal suspect. Now that she’s no longer immune from prosecution, they can make a stronger push for indictment. Their investigations have led to the arrests of former government officials as well as Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of Samsung who is accused of bribing Park in return for business favors.

Meanwhile, South Koreans are required by law to elect a new president within 60 days. The acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will remain in office until the election, which is expected May 9.  

Moon Jae-in, a former opposition party leader who lost to Park in the 2012 election, is the front-runner in opinion surveys. He has stressed the need for dialogue with Pyongyang and has said Seoul should reconsider its plans to deploy THAAD, the US missile-defense system.