March 10, 2017 1:18 pm JST

South Korean court boots Park from office with unanimous ruling

Impeached president loses executive immunity as nation swings into election mode

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye was removed from office on Friday, after the country's eight-member Constitutional Court unanimously upheld her impeachment by parliament.

The court found the impeachment was justified on the grounds that Park violated the constitution and broke the law by helping her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, take money from corporations. Lee Jung-mi, the acting chief of the court, said Park betrayed the public by abusing the status and power of the presidency.

"We dismiss the accused unanimously, because the benefits absolutely outweigh the negatives," Lee said in remarks aired nationwide. "The accused became involved in and supported Choi's pursuit of personal interests. These activities continued through most of her term."

The justice also argued that Park, the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, hurt private companies by pressuring them to pay millions of dollars to two foundations controlled by Choi.

The ruling officially makes Park, the country's first female president, also the first to be impeached by the National Assembly, which voted against her in December. 

Park had been expected to vacate the Blue House on Friday and return to her private residence in the southern part of Seoul, but the presidential office said it needs more time to prepare for the move. The office did not say when Park would leave.

Park still faces a criminal investigation into bribery allegations and is no longer immune to prosecution.

The replacement race

By law, a presidential election must now be held within 60 days. Experts say the date is likely to be May 9, to leave a window for preparations. 

Moon Jae-in, a former head of the Minjoo Party of Korea, leads the polls with more than 30% support. An Hee-jung, the governor of South Chungcheong Province and a member of the same party, is next at 20%.

People's Party Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo and Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn are chasing the front-runners with support rates of around 10%.

Moon welcomed the impeachment ruling, saying that history is driven by the power of the people. "The Republic of Korea will start again" in the wake of this experience, Moon said in a statement.

Observers say the decision could have bearing on the court hearings of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who was arrested last month for allegedly bribing Choi with some 43 billion won ($37 million). The prosecution suspects that Lee paid the money to smooth his succession path, by ensuring that the National Pension Service would support a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015. 

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