The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye following a bizarre scandal over the power she gave to a friend in state affairs has brought a low in the country’s politics and a stunning and swift fall for its first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is number two in the hierarchy, has assumed the leadership until the country’s constitutional Court rules on whether Park must permanently step down.
The Constitutional Court has up to 180 days to decide on Park’s fate. She will be formally removed from office if at least six of the 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 in the National Assembly in Seoul was passed on Friday by a vote of 234 for and 56 opposed, with seven invalid votes and two abstentions. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds majority needed in the 300-seat assembly, with the opposition getting strong support from members of Park’s party.
Park, 64, is accused of “extensive and serious violations of the constitution and the law” after damaging disclosures that she allowed a close friend, daughter of a religious sect leader, extort tens of millions of dollars from South Korean companies and influencing the government in the appointment of top officials.
The damaging charges not only paralysed the government but also resulted in perhaps the largest street protests in the country’s history.
Lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties were under tremendous pressure to act against Park, the daughter of a military dictator Park Chung-hee still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s and 1970s.
“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 at a Cabinet meeting after the vote.
She urged the countrymen to unite behind the prime minister and said she would prepare for the court review of the decision.
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.
The chances of the Constitutional Court reinstating Park seem remote because charges against her are much graver than Roh say some legal experts have been quoted as saying in Seoul. Still, it's hard to predict when and how the Constitutional Court will rule on Ms Park’s fate.
For Park, who convincingly beat her liberal opponent in 2012, the impeachment is a remarkable fall. Park’s five-year term was initially set to end Feb. 24, 2018.
The political turmoil around Park comes after years of frustration over a leadership style that inspired comparisons to her father.
Critics saw in Park an unwillingness to tolerate dissent as her government cracked down on press freedom, pushed to dissolve a leftist party and allowed aggressive police suppression of anti-government protests, which saw the death of an activist in 2016. She was also bitterly criticised over her government’s handling of the 2014 ferry sinking; most of those victims were school kids.
Park has repeatedly apologised over the public anger caused by the latest scandal but has denied any legal wrongdoing.
She attempted to avoid impeachment last month by making a conditional offer to step down if parliament could come up with a stable power-transfer plan, but opposition lawmakers dismissed the overture as a stalling ploy.
Some of her decisions like reaching an agreement with the US to deploy an advanced missile system to counter threats from North Korea did not go down well domestically. It also heightened tensions in the Korean peninsula. The country’s ties with China also deteriorated considerably during her tenure.
As far as India is concerned bilateral trade has consistently increased over the past two decades.
During her visit to Seoul in December 2014, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj referred to both the presence of Korean companies in India, as well as the level of bilateral trade, estimated at $17 billion, still far below its potential of $40 billion, which both countries have targeted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited South Korea in March 2015 during which India and South Korea inked seven agreements, including on avoidance of double taxation and formalising consultations between National Security Councils of the two nations, to boost bilateral ties.