After months of political wrangling, legal drama and historic protests, a court has removed South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office.
The constitutional court that weighed her fate announced Friday its confirmation of the embattled leader’s impeachment in December by the National Assembly — a ruling that could lead to her criminal prosecution.
South Koreans anxiously awaited the decision, which was broadcast live on televisions across the nation. Lee Jungmi, the acting chief judge, said the panel unanimously agreed that Park “violated the duty to safeguard the nation.”
“The respondent, President Park Geun-hye, is expelled,” she said. “We all agree that this is a matter of safeguarding the constitution. Therefore there is no other choice than to decide the verdict.”
In recent weeks, national opinion surveys have suggested that a majority of South Koreans favored the president’s removal from office, if not arrest, amid allegations that she participated in a bribery scheme with the country’s most powerful conglomerate, Samsung Group.
Seo Seok-gu, one of Park's lawyers, said the verdict reflected pressure from the months of massive public protests about the scandal, which often took the form of candlelight vigils, and not the law. He also said his client had been convicted in the press.
"It's a tragic ruling, due to their inability to overcome the power of the candles," he said of the judges. "I do not accept this ruling."
Park's Liberty Korea Party released a statement saying it respects the court decision. "We apologize to the citizens of our country," it said.
The presidential office has yet to release a statement, and reactions from other political leaders were expected later in the day.
With the impeachment upheld, as many analysts predicted, Park’s controversial four-year tenure leading South Korea — a country of 50 million and Asia’s fourth-largest economy — comes to an immediate end.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has served as head of state since Park’s suspension in December, will continue leading the nation. The attention now turns to a special presidential election in early May — a contest that could favor a more liberal candidate after a decade of rule by Park’s conservative political party.
“It will be interesting to what extent the Democrats, or the liberals, will be able to ride the anti-Park sentiment to electoral success,” said Kyung Moon Hwang, a history professor at USC who writes a regular column for a newspaper in Seoul.
With her ouster, Park — South Korea’s first female president — will also be the nation’s first president removed from office through impeachment.
Park could also face criminal charges as the result of a sprawling corruption investigation that has snared several of her aides and the heir apparent to tech giant Samsung Group.
For months, prosecutors have sought to question the president on a range of potential crimes. But she has avoided interrogation, abruptly canceling a planned session last month.
Now out of office, however, Park loses the immunity from criminal prosecution that came with the presidency. Authorities could seek an arrest warrant in an effort to compel her to provide more information.
The scandal erupted in October. A team of special prosecutors recently completed a three-month investigation that led to more than two dozen indictments.
They say Park pressured the Samsung Group to make payments of about $37 million to businesses controlled by a longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil, in exchange for help pushing through approval of a controversial merger between two of the tech giant’s affiliates.
The merger was seen as an effort to solidify third-generation dynastic control for Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, the tech giant’s heir apparent. He was recently indicted on several charges, including bribery and perjury.
Park’s legal team has said the case is politically motivated, but the president has repeatedly apologized — most recently for her “carelessness.” She has said she never sought personal gain.
The allegations investigated by the prosecutors led to massive street demonstrations in recent months. Those continued Friday, as thousands gathered outside the court to express their support for Park.
The court’s ruling — the result of 171 witness statements and more than 50,000 documents — will have other consequences for the disgraced leader. She will now be stripped of the typical pension afforded former presidents, said Ryan Song, a law professor at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University.
She also must move out of the South Korean presidential complex, known as the Blue House for its distinctly colored tile roof. It remained unclear in the immediate aftermath of the court’s ruling how long she would remain there.
Born in the southern city of Daegu, a place known for its conservative politics, Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who ruled South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. She rose to power, in part, on nostalgia for his era, when the country emerged from the ashes of the Korean War to become the export-fueled economic force it is today. Democracy came to the nation only a generation ago.
Park emerged as a public figure when her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer during an ill-fated attempt on her father’s life. She returned from university abroad and served as acting first lady while still a young woman, hosting foreign dignitaries who visited the Blue House.
Park, 65, never married, and she remains estranged from her two siblings.
She entered electoral politics in 1998 as a member of the National Assembly, representing her home district and later leading her conservative political party, then known as Saenuri, until being elected president in 2012. She had previously sought the presidency in 2007 but narrowly lost to Lee Myung-bak.
Her election in 2012 was close, with just under half of the 30 million voters in the contest siding with her opponent, Moon Jae-in, a more liberal candidate who is a front-runner in many polls in the coming presidential race to replace her.
In office, Park never developed the ability to shape South Korea’s policy like her famous father, who seized power in a coup and ruled as an autocrat. Her tenure, even before the scandal, had been marked by controversy and hurt by what some observers say was an ineffective, secretive and aloof governing style.
“She didn’t have the chops,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University. “She didn’t have the gravity, the weight, to do it.”
Many of her strongest supporters — some of whom have publicly defended her in large rallies recently, at times with violent overtones — perhaps projected onto her candidacy and presidency their nostalgia for an earlier era of political control and economic boom.
“She was a tragic figure in many ways, really a sympathetic figure, who got overwhelmed by these other forces,” said Hwang, the USC professor. “They saw her really as an extension of her father, or almost as a rehabilitation of her father.”
Park’s presidency started with controversy amid allegations that the country’s National Intelligence Service — an agency prohibited from working on domestic issues generally — had meddled in the election to help her political party.
Other than the scandal, perhaps the defining moment of her time in office was the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in which nearly 300 people — most of them high school students — perished when the vessel capsized en route to Jeju Island.
The incident, an intensely painful event for many South Koreans, led to widespread criticism of the government’s disaster response and its perceived attempts to downplay culpability over lax maritime regulations that might have contributed to the disaster.
Distraught parents pressed for a more robust investigation, and Park’s presidency never really recovered. Questions about her whereabouts during a critical seven-hour period during the disaster still haunt her public image.
Indeed, the constitutional court that heard the impeachment case demanded an accounting of the missing time — the subject of which has led to rampant speculation in the press and public.
Park ultimately refused to answer, and Friday she learned her fate, though the judges said her role after the disaster played no role in their verdict.
The court's ruling appears to end a dramatic, six-month saga that’s roiled the country’s political and business spheres and enraged many ordinary South Koreans.
“Someone will have to make a movie about this some day, but it would have to be a tragedy,” Kelly said.
Stiles is a special correspondent.
7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with the court’s decision and extensive background on the ousted president.
This article was originally published at 9:10 a.m.