Impeached South Korean president removed from office

South Korea's Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, removing her from office over a graft scandal involving big business that has gripped the country for months.

2 killed as hundreds rally for and against Park Geun-hye

Violent protests in Seoul turn deadly

5 years ago
Duration 1:08
Pro-government protesters battle police after impeachment of president Park Geun-Hye

South Korea's Constitutional Court removed President Park Geun-hye from office on Friday over a graft scandal involving the country's conglomerates at a time of rising tensions with North Korea and China.

The ruling sparked protests from hundreds of Park's supporters, two of whom were killed in clashes with police outside the court, and a festive rally by those who had demanded her ouster who celebrated justice being served.

"We did it. We the citizens, the sovereign of this country, opened a new chapter in history," Lee Tae-ho, the leader of a movement to oust Park that has held mostly peaceful rallies in downtown involving millions, told a large gathering in Seoul.

Park becomes South Korea's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office, capping months of paralysis and turmoil over the corruption scandal that also landed the head of the Samsung conglomerate in detention and on trial.

Protesters look at cutouts of impeached President Park Geun-hye, top, and acting leader and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, bottom, in a mock jail as they march toward the presidential house after the Constitutional Court's verdict in Seoul on Friday. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

A snap presidential election will be held within 60 days. Park did not appear in court, and a spokesperson said she would not be making any comment.

"Park is not leaving the Blue House today," spokesperson Kim Dong Jo told Reuters.

Park was stripped of her powers after parliament voted to impeach her but has remained in the president's official 

The court's acting chief judge, Lee Jung-mi, said Park had violated the constitution and law "throughout her term," and 
despite the objections of parliament and the media, she concealed the truth and cracked down on critics.

Park has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

South Korean supporters of Park Geun-Hye clash with police after the announcement of the Constitutional Court on Friday. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

The ruling to uphold parliament's Dec. 9 vote to impeach her marks a dramatic fall from grace of South Korea's first woman president and daughter of Cold War military dictator Park Chung-hee. Both her parents were assassinated.

Park, 65, no longer has immunity and could now face criminal charges over bribery, extortion and abuse of power in connection with allegations of conspiring with her friend, Choi Soon-sil. 

PM steps in

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn was appointed acting president and will remain in that post until the election. He called on Park's supporters and opponents to put their differences aside to prevent deeper division.

"It is time to accept, and close the conflict and confrontation we have suffered," Hwang said in a televised speech.

A liberal presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, is leading in opinion polls to succeed Park. Hwang, who has not said whether he will seek the presidency, leads among conservatives, none of whom has more than single-digit poll ratings.

"Given Park's spectacular demise and disarray among conservatives, the presidential contest in May is the liberals to lose," said Yonsei University professor John Delury.

South Korea's parliament impeached President Park Geun-hye in December after millions took to the streets calling for her resignation over an explosive political scandal involving her and a confidante. (Nicolas Asfouri/Associated Press)

U.S. anti-missile connection

Relations with China and the United States could dominate the coming presidential campaign, after the U.S. military this month started deploying the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea in response to North Korea's stepped-up missile and nuclear tests.

Beijing has vigorously protested against the deployment, which was agreed to last year by Washington and Seoul.

China has curbed travel to South Korea and targeted Korean companies operating in the mainland, prompting retaliatory measures from Seoul.

The U.S. military said on Friday it would keep delivering THAAD components, separating the issue from South Korea's internal political crisis.

The new U.S. administration has been keen to install the system as quickly as possible due to concerns that a new government in Seoul could block the deployment.

"We have a strong relationship and will continue to work with South Korea," White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said. "It's a domestic issue in which the United States takes no position in the outcome of that election."

Protesters supporting South Korean President Park Geun-hye scuffle with riot police near the Constitutional Court in Seoul. A 72-year-old man was killed as a result of injuries in the rallies for and against Park. (Yonhap via Reuters)

Markets rise

The Seoul market's benchmark KOSPI index and the won currency rose after the ruling.

The prospect of a new president in the first half of this year instead of prolonged uncertainty would buoy domestic demand as well as the markets, said Trinh Nguyen, senior economist at Natixis in Hong Kong.

"The hope is that this will allow the country to have a new leader that can address long-standing challenges such as labour market reforms and escalated geopolitical tensions," he said.

Park was accused of colluding with her friend Choi and a former presidential aide, both of whom have been on trial, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.

The court said Park had "completely hidden the fact of [Choi's] interference with state affairs."

Park was also accused of soliciting bribes from the head of the Samsung Group for government favours, including backing a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015 that was seen as supporting family succession and control over the country's largest conglomerate.

Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee has been accused of bribery and embezzlement in connection with the scandal and is in detention. His trial began on Thursday.

He and Samsung have also denied wrongdoing.

A blood-stained national flag is seen at a scene where a supporter of impeached President Park Geun-hye was injured during a protest after Park's ouster on Friday. The protester later died in hospital, according to local media. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Elderly supporters

The scandal and verdict have exposed fault lines in a country long divided by Cold War politics.

While Park's conservative supporters clashed with police outside the court, elsewhere most people welcomed her ouster. A recent poll showed more than 70 per cent supported her impeachment.

Hundreds of thousands of people have for months been gathering at peaceful rallies in Seoul every weekend to call for Park to step down.

On Friday, hundreds of Park's supporters, many of them elderly, tried to break through police barricades at the courthouse.

Police said one 72-year-old man was taken to hospital with a head injury and died. The circumstances of the second death were being investigated.

Six people were injured, protest organizers said.

Police blocked the main thoroughfare running through downtown Seoul in anticipation of bigger protests.

Departing Blue House again

Park will be making an untimely departure from the Blue House for the second time in her life.

In 1979, having served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, she and her two siblings left the presidential compound after their father was killed.

This time, she could end up in jail.

Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice in two court cases linked to the scandal, suggesting she is likely to be investigated.

North Korean state media wasted little time labelling Park a criminal.

"She had one more year left as president but, now she's been ousted, she will be investigated as a common criminal," the KCNA news agency said shortly after the court decision.