Three protesters die, South Korea braces for more rallies after president’s sacking
Rival protest groups epitomise the opposing passions and generational splits over the country’s sweeping political scandal
South Korean police on Saturday braced for more violence between opponents and supporters of ousted President Park Geun-hye, who was stripped of her powers by the Constitutional Court over a corruption scandal that has plunged the country into a political turmoil.
Three people died and dozens were injured in clashes between police and Park’s supporters after the ruling Friday, according to police, which detained seven protesters for questioning.
The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was planning to deploy nearly 20,000 officers and hundreds of buses to separate the two crowds, whose passionate rallies have divided the streets near the presidential palace in the past several weekends as the scandal worsened.
The court’s decision capped a stunning fall for the country’s first female leader. Park rode a wave of lingering conservative nostalgia for her late dictator father to victory in 2012, only to see her presidency crumble as millions of furious protesters filled the nation’s streets.
Watch: South Korea’s Park Geun-hye removed from office
The ruling allows possible criminal proceedings against the 65-year-old Park — prosecutors have already named her a criminal suspect — and makes her South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be removed from office since democracy replaced dictatorship in the late 1980s.
It also deepens South Korea’s political and security uncertainty as it faces existential threats from North Korea, reported economic retaliation from a China furious about Seoul’s cooperation with the US on an anti-missile system, and questions in Seoul about the new Trump administration’s commitment to the countries’ security alliance.
Park’s “acts of violating the constitution and law are a betrayal of the public trust,” Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said.
“The benefits of protecting the constitution that can be earned by dismissing the defendant are overwhelmingly big. Hereupon, in a unanimous decision by the court panel, we issue a verdict: We dismiss the defendant, President Park Geun-hye.”
Lee accused Park of colluding with longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil to extort tens of millions of dollars from businesses and letting Choi, a private citizen, meddle in state affairs and receive and look at documents with state secrets. Those allegations were previously made by prosecutors, but Park has refused to undergo any questioning, citing a law that gives a sitting leader immunity from prosecution.
It is not clear when prosecutors will try to interview her.
Park hasn’t vacated the presidential Blue House yet, as her aides are preparing for her return to her private home in southern Seoul, according to her office. Park has not made a public statement on her removal.
Park’s lawyer, Seo Seok-gu, who had previously compared her impeachment to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, called the verdict a “tragic decision” made under popular pressure and questioned the fairness of what he called a “kangaroo court.”
South Korea must now hold an election within two months to choose Park’s successor. Liberal Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, currently enjoys a comfortable lead in opinion surveys.
Pre-verdict surveys showed that 70 to 80 per cent of South Koreans wanted the court to approve Park’s impeachment. But there have been worries that Park’s ouster would further polarize the country and cause violence.
Sensing history, thousands of people — both pro-Park supporters, many of them dressed in army-style fatigues and wearing red berets, and those who wanted Park gone — gathered around the Constitutional Court building and a huge public square in downtown Seoul.
Some of Park’s supporters reacted with anger after the ruling, shouting and hitting police officers and reporters with plastic flag poles and steel ladders and climbing on police buses. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting head of state, pleaded for peace and urge protesters to move on. Anti-Park protesters celebrated by marching in the streets near the Blue House, carrying flags, signs and an effigy of Park dressed in prison clothes and tied up with rope.
“We won, we won,” they chanted, waving banners.
“This is a victory of democracy,” 27-year-old student Ahn Yo-Wool said, wiping tears from her cheek.
Another student, Lim Na-kyung, added: “The impeachment of the president is truly a day that will go down in history. My heart is full of emotion and I am very happy.”
But some of Park’s diehard supporters, mostly older conservatives with fond memories of the rule of her late father, dictator Park Chung-Hee, still stand by her.
Some broke police barricades and attempted to pull away police buses blocking their path, prompting the police to use pepper spray.
“We don’t accept this decision,” said Cho Bong-Am, 60, a kindergarten operator. “We will take to the street to fight to the end.”
Police and hospital officials said three people died while protesting Park’s removal. A man in his 70s, believed to be a Park supporter, died after a large speaker that had been mounted on a police truck fell on his head, police said. They are questioning a Park supporter who allegedly knocked off the speaker by stealing a police bus and crashing it into the truck.
Police said that another man in his 70s died early Saturday after collapsing near the court. An official from the nearby Kangbuk Samsung Hospital said another man brought from the pro-Park rally died shortly after receiving CPR at the hospital.
Prosecutors have arrested and indicted a slew of high-profile figures over the scandal, including Park’s confidante Choi, top Park administration officials and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse