Court upholds impeachment of South Korean president over bribery scandal

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been removed from office, with the Constitutional Court unanimously upholding a parliamentary vote to impeach her for her role in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.

Elections for a new president must now be held within 60 days, and polls suggest there will be a change in political direction for South Korea, with the progressive candidate Moon Jae-in holding a strong lead over the conservatives who were once loyal to Park.

“The court dismisses President Park Geun-hye from her position,” said Lee Jung-mi, the acting chief justice, delivering the highly anticipated verdict Friday. “There is no other choice but to decide this verdict.”

The decision marks a historic moment in a country that adopted democracy only 30 years ago, with peaceful protest leading to the removal of an elected leader. But supporters of Park wasted no time in venting their anger Friday morning, clashing with riot police and breaching cordons around the court.

The case has rocked South Korean society because of the sheer extent of the alleged corruption: Not only is the presidential Blue House implicated but also the chiefs of leading companies such as Samsung, a high-profile prosecutor and the head of the national pension fund, the world’s third-largest.

The case comes at a time of high tensions in the region, with North Korea firing missiles and threats and an angry China retaliating against South Korea for hosting an American antimissile battery, which Beijing views as an effort to curtail China.

All eight judges on the Constitutional Court voted to uphold the impeachment motion against Park, passed by an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly in December, saying the president had “continuously” violated the law and Constitution.

The conservative faction is in disarray, with the ruling party splitting into those who supported the president and those wanting to distance themselves from her.

The latest polls put Moon, a progressive from the Democratic Party who ran against Park in the last presidential election, in the lead, although he is facing a surprise primary challenge from An Hee-jung.

Moon has taken a much more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than the conservative governments that have held power since 2008, and his election would likely see the resumption of a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.

Park, 65, is the daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee, who served as president from 1963 to 1979 and oversaw South Korea’s transformation into an economic powerhouse by supporting conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai.

Park Geun-hye has long been considered a kind of princess figure in South Korea, and one with a traumatic past. While she was in college, her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, shot by a North Korean sympathizer. Even today, Park wears an old-fashioned hairstyle reminiscent of her mother’s.

She effectively became South Korea’s first lady at 22, and during this time became close to Choi Tae-min, the founder of a religious cult that incorporated elements of Christianity and Buddhism. He would “deliver messages” to Park from her dead mother, according to local reports. A U.S. Embassy cable noted that the local media described Choi as a “Korean Rasputin.”

Park also became close to Choi’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, and their friendship continued after both their fathers died.

Park’s father, still president, was killed in 1979 by his own spy chief, and Park disappeared from public view for almost two decades.

Yoonjung Seo and Associated Press contributed reporting.

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