December 10, 2016
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shifting from protests to celebration, large crowds of South Koreans were expected to march near the presidential palace on Saturday to cheer the impeachment of disgraced President Park Geun-hye over an explosive corruption scandal.
Protesters were planning to march to the palace where the notoriously aloof Park will remain mostly alone for up to six months until the Constitutional Court rules whether she should step down permanently.
On Friday, South Korean lawmakers impeached Park, a stunning and swift fall for the country’s first female leader. The vote came weeks after state prosecutors accused Park of colluding with a longtime friend to extort money and favors from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions. Park has apologized for putting trust in her friend, Choi Soon-sil, but denies any legal wrongdoings.
After the vote, parliamentary officials hand-delivered formal documents to the presidential Blue House that stripped Park of her power and allowed the country’s No. 2 official, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, to assume leadership until the court rules on Park’s fate.
“I’d like to say that I’m deeply sorry to the people because the nation has to experience this turmoil because of my negligence and lack of virtue at a time when our security and economy both face difficulties,” Park said after the vote, before a closed-door meeting with her Cabinet where she and other aides reportedly broke down in tears.
Hwang separately said that he wanted “the ruling and opposition political parties and the parliament to gather strength and wisdom so that we can return stability to the country and people as soon as possible.”
Once called the “Queen of Elections” for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Park has been surrounded in the Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest.
There was tension Saturday hours before the large demonstration when thousands of Park supporters, most of them in their 60s or older, rallied in nearby streets, waving the country’s flags and shouting for Park’s “demagoguery impeachment” to be nullified.
Some of them wiggled into a boulevard pass thick lines of police officers and exchanged bitter diatribes with anti-Park protesters, before the officers forced them back out. Similar scenes played out on Friday when scuffles broke out between angry anti-Park farmers, some of whom had driven tractors to the National Assembly, and police. When impeachment happened, many of those gathered — some 10,000, according to organizers — raised their hands in the air and leapt about, cheering and laughing.
The handover of power prompted the prime minister to order South Korea’s defense minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea. No suspicious movements by the North were reported, however.
Park will be formally removed from office if at least six of the Constitutional Court’s nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days. The bill on Park’s impeachment was passed by a vote of 234 for and 56 opposed, with seven invalid votes and two abstentions. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds vote needed in the 300-seat assembly, with the opposition getting strong support from members of Park’s party.
Present for the vote were relatives of the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption; they cheered and wept after the impeachment was announced. Most lawmakers left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.
Lawmakers from both parties faced huge pressure to act against Park, the daughter of a military dictator still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s and 1970s.
Her approval ratings had plunged to 4 percent, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her.
South Korean lawmakers last voted to impeach a president in 2004, when they accused late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun of minor election law violations and incompetence. The Constitutional Court restored Roh’s powers about two months later, ruling that his wrongdoings weren’t serious enough to justify his unseating.