What next for Park Geun-hye?
Aside from ending her presidency just under a year before her five-year term was due to expire in February 2018, the court’s ruling means Park loses the immunity to criminal indictment she enjoyed for as long as she was president. Now she is no longer in power, prosecutors can summon, question and possibly arrest her.
Having become the first democratically elected South Korean leader to be ousted, Park now faces a nervous wait to discover whether she will face criminal proceedings.
What happens to the presidency?
Park will be immediately stripped of her powers and a presidential election must be held within 60 days. The consensus among local media is that voters will elect her successor on 9 May.
South Korea’s prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was appointed acting president after the national assembly’s impeachment vote, will continue in that role until the election.
Why was she impeached?
Park is the most prominent figure in a wide-ranging corruption and cronyism scandal that has gripped South Korea since last autumn.
She and her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, are accused of conspiring to pressure companies to donate large sums to two nonprofit foundations Choi set up. Samsung, by far the country’s most famous company, is among those that donated close to US$70m. Choi is accused of using the money for personal gain, which she denies.
Park admitted behaving “naively”, but denies coercing companies. She has also denied claims that she granted her friend, who does not have security clearance, unlawful access to state affairs, and allowed her to influence policy, including Seoul’s stance on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
How are South Koreans reacting?
Millions of people have taken to the streets in several cities since last year, calling for her impeachment.
Smaller pro-Park rallies have taken place in recent weeks, mainly involving older voters who recall with nostalgia her dictator father’s role in encouraging South Korea’s transformation into an Asian economic powerhouse.
Given the strength of public opinion and the seriousness of the accusations levelled against Park, a decision to reinstate her could have caused public unrest, with some anti-Park demonstrators threatening to start a “revolution”.
What happens next in South Korea?
South Korea must elect a new president at a time of widespread anger at the state of the economy, and the influence wielded by its political and industrial elites.
Millions of anti-Park voters will be hoping that the scandal acts as a catalyst for sweeping domestic reforms to rein in the political influence of the chaebol, South Korea’s family-run conglomerates. The acting head of Samsung is already on trial in connection with donations the firm made to Choi’s foundations, but there are mounting calls for other tycoons to face legal action.
And across the region?
Friday’s ruling comes at a time of increasing tension on the Korean peninsula and in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Park took a hard line against North Korea’s nuclear programme, in contrast to some of her predecessors.
There is mounting anxiety over North Korea’s progress towards a viable nuclear arsenal. This week, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles, one of which splashed down just 200km from the north-west coast of Japan. Despite hurling insults at Park during the early days of her presidency, the regime in Pyongyang has largely remained silent over the cronyism scandal.
Park succeeded in forging closer ties with China, but relations soured after South Korea agreed to deploy a US missile defence system intended to counter the growing threat from the North. Beijing says the Thaad system represents a threat to its own security and has called for it to be cancelled.
The veteran liberal politician Moon Jae-in is potentially the greatest beneficiary. Moon, who has a comfortable lead in the race to succeed Park, has called for the missile defence system to be “reconsidered”, and would be expected to seek dialogue with Pyongyang.
A Moon presidency could come too late to repair relations with Beijing: officials in Washington and Seoul say Thaad could be up and running as early as next month.
Whoever wins the election, the priority will be to bring a semblance of stability to South Korean politics and begin the difficult task of uniting a country that has become bitterly divided by the scandal. (The Guardian)