South Korean Parliament Impeaches President
Political upheaval for an important Asian ally.
The President of South Korea has been impeached by that country’s Parliament after nearly a year of corruption allegations came to a head:
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s Parliament voted on Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye, an aloof conservative who took a hard line against North Korea and rose to power with strong support from those who revered her father, the military dictator Park Chung-hee.
The vote against Ms. Park, the nation’s first female leader, followed weeks of damaging disclosures in a corruption scandal that has all but paralyzed the government and produced the largest street protests in the nation’s history. Her powers are suspended while the Constitutional Court considers whether to remove her from office.
Ms. Park suggested that she intended to fight her impeachment, telling cabinet members hours later that she would “calmly” prepare for the court trial and giving no hint that she would resign.
“I am gravely accepting the voices of the people and the National Assembly, and I sincerely hope that the confusion will come to a satisfactory end,” she said at the presidential Blue House in a meeting broadcast on national television.
She also apologized — her fourth public apology in less than seven weeks — for “my lack of discretion and my carelessness,” but she did not acknowledge any legal wrongdoing.
Ms. Park has been accused of allowing a shadowy confidante, the daughter of a religious sect leader, to exercise remarkable influence on matters ranging from choosing top government officials to her wardrobe, and of helping her extort tens of millions of dollars from South Korean companies. The scandal, which gained national attention less than two months ago, has cast a harsh light on collusion between the presidency and big business in one of Asia’s most dynamic economies.
Thousands of people who had gathered outside the Parliament building in the frigid cold danced, cheered and blew on horns when the news was announced.
“My heart is beating so fast,” said Han Joo-young, 47, an executive at a nonprofit organization who had come from Paju, north of the capital. “I am so touched that people who are usually powerless can have so much power when they come together.”
The impeachment motion, accusing Ms. Park of “extensive and serious violations of the Constitution and the law,” will now be taken up by the Constitutional Court, which has six months to decide whether the charges are true and merit her ouster.
A total of 234 lawmakers voted for impeachment, well over the required two-thirds threshold in the 300-seat National Assembly, the lone house of Parliament in South Korea. The vote was by secret ballot, but the results indicated that nearly half of the 128 lawmakers in Ms. Park’s party, Saenuri, had joined the opposition in moving to oust her.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, a former prosecutor and staunch defender of Ms. Park, will serve as acting president in the meantime. If the court votes to remove Ms. Park, South Korea will hold an election for a new president in 60 days.
The New York Times has a fairly good summary of the process from here going forward. As noted above unlike the United States, where impeachments of Judges and Executive Branch officials would be tried in the Senate, the actual trial on the charges against Park will be heard by the nine Justices who sit on South Korea’s Constitutional Court, the Court of last resort in the Republic of Korea. If she is found guilty by at least six of the Court’s nine members, she will be removed from office and there will be new elections for the office of President. In that regard, the Times lists potential successors. If acquitted, she will, of course, continue in office until the end of her current term. Until the matter is resolved, the Presidency will be held by the current Prime Minister who is a member of the same party as Ms. Park so there should not be much of a change in policy. It’s unclear from the reports I’ve read whether the Prime Minister will be required to hand over his post to a deputy during this period. South Korean law also requires the Constitutional Court to act take up the impeachment motion within 180 days, which is important because timing is important here. As the linked article notes, two of the Justices on the Constitutional Court are set to step down in March. If the Court has not ruled by then, it’s unclear if the Acting President would have the authority to replace them, meaning that Park could only be removed if six of the seven remaining Justices vote to convict. This is important because six of the Justices on the Court right now were appointed by Park, although it’s worth noting that the impeachment vote included many members of Park’s own party so that may not be an indication of how the Justices might vote.
Given its location in the world, and the fact that one of the most unstable and potentially dangerous regimes in the world is located just on the other side of a Demilitarized Zone that remains a global hotspot sixty-four years after the Korean War ended in a still unfinalized armistice, any political instability in South Korea is worth paying attention to, but it is worth noting that there’s much about the process that has unfolded there to be optimistic about. In the past, a crisis such as this might have led to a military coup or increases in the authoritarian rule that has been a part of the history of South Korea since the Korean Peninsula was divided. We now seem to have reached a point where the system can deal with a problem like this the way the country’s Constitution intended with relatively little instability. Despite that happy note, the present question of Park’s position will hopefully be resolved in short order so that there isn’t an opportunity for the Kim regime to exploit instability in the south to get away with more adventurism and military provocation.