SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye faces increased pressure from opposition parties to step down amid scandal, though such an unprecedented move in modern history would risk a constitutional crisis.
Leaders of the country's three opposition parties reaffirmed their stance Thursday that Park should resign. In response, Lee Jung-hyun, chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, dismissed those calls for her abdication. "It is only an unofficial people's court that would unseat a president granted power by the constitution by instigating the people against her," he said.
The president of South Korea is the head of state, elected directly by voters. This person wields ultimate authority over domestic, foreign and military policies. The nation's constitution does not specifically address resignation prior to the end of the president's term, though the president, if impeached, can step down.
Three South Korean presidents in history resigned while in office, but each case resulted from a revolution or military coup. No sitting president has stepped down since the current constitution was enacted in 1987.
But the opposition claims the mass protests Saturday effectively amounted to a popular revolution. Official estimates say 260,000 people showed up, though organizers put the number at 1 million. The constitution does allow for the president to resign in those conditions, the opposition argues, citing a provision stating that if the president "is unable to perform his duties for any reason, the Prime Minister or the members of the State Council in the order of priority as determined by Act shall act for him."
One constitutional scholar says the provision would apply if a president were unable to perform official duties due to low standing. Another lawyer said the president is a public servant, a position governed by the rule of law according to the constitution. Those laws allow state officials to resign at their own request.
Some lawmakers are exploring whether Park could relinquish her powers to a prime minister selected by the National Assembly. But the validity of that avenue appears questionable because the constitution does not clearly stipulate such an arrangement.
Since the president leads the armed forces, such a power-sharing agreement could result in confusion in the chain of command if North Korea engaged in a limited war with the South. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has drawn a line in the sand against such proposals, saying Park cannot give up powers granted by the constitution.
The Park administration has made moves to re-establish her authority. A delegation of top-level officials flew to the U.S. on Wednesday to meet with President-elect Donald Trump to build communication with the incoming administration. Park also appointed a new vice foreign minister Wednesday and a vice culture minister Thursday. The previous vice culture minister resigned under a cloud stemming from the corruption scandal involving Park's confidante, Choi Soon-sil.