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South Korea's Park Geun-hye impeached

12 March 2017

Park Geun-hye has become the first democratically elected South Korean president to be forced from office, after the country’s constitutional court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her over a corruption and cronyism scandal that could see her face criminal charges. She will immediately forfeit the executive immunity she enjoyed as president, meaning prosecutors can summon, question and possibly arrest her. There is now likely to be a turbulent period while a new President is elected. There are unlikely to be any new foreign policy initiatives for some time.

The Constitutional Court formally removed Park from office on 10 March, upholding an impeachment motion filed by politicians in December amid suspicions that she colluded with a confidante (Ms Choi Soon-sil) to extort money and favours from companies and allowed the friend to secretly manipulate state affairs.

The ruling ended a power struggle that had consumed the nation for months and marked a stunning downfall for Park, who convincingly defeated her liberal opponent in 2012 with overwhelming support from older South Koreans, who remembered her father, a former South Korean leader, as a hero.

The court said it could not find conclusive evidence for most of these charges. But it was able to rule that Ms Park had divulged state secrets to Choi Soon-sil, a close friend who amassed a personal fortune of $20m. Park also colluded to help her extort funds from conglomerates and profit from two cultural organisations that Ms Choi controlled.

The court also found that throughout the investigation Ms Park’s actions had been aimed at concealing the truth by obstructing the ability of the National Assembly to hold her to account. It all amounted to “an undermining of the rule of law and representative democracy”; she had lost the trust of the public and “let down” her citizens.

Over three-quarters of South Koreans felt she deserved to be impeached, according to a poll conducted shortly before the decision. But that still leaves a vocal, mostly older minority feeling that Ms Park is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt. Conservative protest groups opposing Ms Park’s removal have grown larger and shriller in recent weeks. They threatened a “bloody civil resistance” should the court uphold her impeachment. Two from their camp died during the protest following the verdict) while over 21,000 riot police were  deployed in central Seoul to maintain order.

Editorials in the main newspapers, and Buddhist and Christian leaders alike, have urged South Koreans to accept the Court’s verdict. As an MP who had supported Roh’s impeachment, Park said then that she accepted the court’s verdict and saw the decision as an opportunity to cultivate respect for the constitution. Now her time has come.

It will be much more difficult to find such unanimity within society. South Korea now has to elect a new president by early May. Opinion polls show liberal Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in 2012, as the favourite to become the country's next leader. Ms Park’s party, Liberty Korea, appears leaderless and in disarray.

This could have implications for foreign policy as the opposition has been opposed to the deployment of THAAD missiles by the US to defend S Korea from the DPRK missile threat. US Secretary of State is due to visit Seoul this week for consultations. Relations with the DPRK, Japan, China and even the EU could change under a new president.