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(4th LD) Court upholds impeachment of Park, removes her from office

All Headlines 12:31 March 10, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES with reactions of political parties, U.S. State Department in paras 11-13; RAISES quote to para 3; ADDS details)

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- The Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Friday, removing her from office after a 92-day leadership crisis and triggering a presidential election in the weeks to come.

The ruling, which was announced by the court's acting chief and televised live, made Park the nation's first democratically elected leader to be ousted.

"The negative effects of the president's actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the Constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large," acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said in delivering the ruling that lasted about 20 minutes.

Park was impeached by parliament on Dec. 9 on charges of letting a close friend meddle in state affairs, colluding with her to extort money from conglomerates, and neglecting her duties during a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300.

An election to pick her successor must be held within 60 days and many expect it to fall on May 9.

This image shows President Park Geun-hye (R) and Lee Jung-mi, acting chief of the Constitutional Court. (Yonhap)

Of the charges brought against the former president, the court acknowledged the illegality of Park's actions in letting Choi Soon-sil handle state affairs. It dismissed the others, such as her abuse of power to appoint government officials, citing a lack of evidence. On Park's alleged neglect of duty during the ferry sinking, Lee said the charge did not warrant deliberation by the court.

In the ruling, approved by all eight justices, the court accused Park of "thoroughly hiding" Choi's involvement in government affairs, saying she not only denied the suspicions but was also critical of them.

Park helped her friend of 40 years pursue personal gains by supporting the establishment of various companies under Choi's control and "continuously" violated the law and Constitution throughout her term, it said.

"Judging from the series of words and actions (Park has made), there is no will to defend the Constitution," Lee said. "The president's violations of the Constitution and the law amount to a betrayal of the people's trust and are grave actions that cannot be tolerated from the perspective of defending the Constitution."

There was no immediate comment from the presidential office.

But an aide to the former president told Yonhap News Agency the presidential office is "in talks over the future course of action."

The minor People's Party called the court's decision a victory by the people, while the Bareun Party, which spun off from the then-ruling Liberty Korea Party in the wake of the scandal, called on political circles to accept the ruling for the sake of national unity.

The United States also reacted to the news, saying through a State Department spokesman it will continue to be a "steadfast ally" of South Korea and "look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president."

Local pundits said the court's decision demonstrated that South Korea's democratic system is firmly in place.

"The Constitutional Court's decision is equivalent to demanding legal accountability for President Park's failure to properly run state affairs," said Yang Seung-ham, honorary professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Now the public should accept the ruling."

The nation has been sharply divided along ideological and generational lines since the scandal broke in October, pushing millions of people into the streets to rally for or against the impeachment.

Liberal politicians have tapped into voter disappointment with calls for a change of administration after nearly 10 years of conservative rule. Former opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, has been leading presidential opinion polls with approval ratings of over 30 percent.

The conservative bloc, meanwhile, has so far failed to field a candidate with a double digit approval rating, with the exception of Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has yet to formally join the race.

"We have undergone a process of resolving considerable conflict and differences in a predictable manner through legal procedures stipulated in the Constitution," said Park Myoung-kyu, a sociology professor at Seoul National University. "Now is the time to calm down and turn (the conflict) into policy debates and arguments."

The president's supporters and detractors rallied outside the court as police officers and police buses were deployed to prevent a possible clash.

The court's decision strips Park of her immunity from criminal prosecution, which will force her to undergo interrogation by prosecutors over her alleged crimes.

Police buses are deployed back-to-back around the Constitutional Court in Seoul on March 10, 2017, as police strengthen security at the court, which will rule on whether to impeach President Park Geun-hye the same day. (Yonhap)


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