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Park Geun-hye impeachment explained

Dec. 9, 2016 - 14:56 By Korea Herald
The National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Friday, clearing the way for the country’s second presidential impeachment trial in history. It is now up to the nine judges of the Constitutional Court to determine whether Park should be removed from or remain in office. 

President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)

Who is Park?

Park is the first female president of South Korea. She is the first daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 18 years until his assassination in 1979.

She won the 2012 presidential election on support of conservative voters -- particularly elderly voters nostalgic for her father’s era.

Childless and never married, the president has famously said she has devoted her life to the country and never pursued private interests.

Park has 14 months remaining in her single, five-year term. 

Why is she in trouble?

A scandal erupted in late October, revealing Park’s seemingly unexplainable reliance on Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of her late “mentor” Choi Tae-min, in both public and private life.

In her first apology, the president admitted to having sought the advice of Choi, who holds no government position and has no policy background, on public addresses.

Ensuing revelations show that Choi’s influence was far-reaching -- from Park’s wardrobe choices to government policies and personnel appointments.

At the core of the scandal are two foundations – Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation – founded and controlled by Choi. Park is accused of colluding with Choi to extort donations from large businesses, including Samsung and LG. 

What is Park being impeached for? 

The impeachment bill, approved by the parliament Friday, listed four main charges against President Park. They are:

- Park violated multiple clauses of the Constitution by allowing her civilian friend Choi Soon-sil and Choi’s associates to meddle in state affairs.

- Park broke multiple laws by colluding with Choi and others to force private businesses to make donations and give contracts to particular companies.

- Park broke the law by handing over to Choi a draft of presidential and governmental documents containing confidential information.

- Park neglected her duty to protect the lives of the people when the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, killing over 300 people. 

What is an impeachment trial like in South Korea?

The impeachment trial, as described in the Constitution, is different from that of the US and other Western countries.

Presided over by the Constitutional Court, it is basically about whether certain acts of the president constitute impeachable offenses or not. So it is more of a legal judgment than anything political.

According to the Constitution:

“In case the president ... violated the Constitution or other acts in the performance of the official duties, the National Assembly may pass motions for impeachment.”

The head of the parliamentary judiciary committee acts as the lead “prosecutor,” while the president will be represented by her own team of attorneys.

Actual hearings do take place, but the president is likely to be spared the embarrassment of facing the interrogation of lawmakers. In a previous trial, then-President Roh Moo-hyun was requested to appear in court, but refused to do so.

A verdict must be reached within 180 days. In the 2004 trial of Roh, the court decided on the 63rd day after passage of the parliamentary impeachment bill to reinstate him.

How likely is Park’s impeachment?

In a survey of six Constitutional law experts, conducted by The Korea Herald last month, three said the court is likely to find Park’s actions warrant her impeachment. Two refrained from making predictions, while one said the impeachment could be overturned by the court, given the ideological makeup of the judges.

Aside from legal considerations, two factors may come into play: public sentiment and the scheduled departures early next year of two of the nine judges. The two seats may go unfilled during the trial, with the president suspended from office.

In a Real Meter poll, over 75 percent of the public supported Park’s impeachment.

Citizens demanding her immediate removal have been taking to the streets every Saturday for the past six weeks. In the latest massive anti-Park rally last Saturday, a record 2.32 million rallied nationwide. 

By Korea Herald special report team / (