South Korean Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Impeach President

Dec 9, 2016
Originally published on December 9, 2016 10:48 am

South Korean lawmakers voted 234-56 on Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye. A constitutional court will now decide whether to remove from office the country's first female leader, who's been mired in a corruption scandal that has paralyzed the country's political system.

"Regardless of the opinions in favor or against the impeachment, the public is watching with deep hearts," National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun said after the vote. "And hoping this doesn't repeat itself in the future."

President Park is temporarily stripped of her powers and the prime minister will take over until the constitutional court decides whether to uphold the legislature's decision and formally remove her. As long as she is president, even if her powers are suspended, Park is immune from prosecution.

Park was impeached by the National Assembly for a slew of reasons, all tied to the scandal that has paralyzed Park and Korean politics.

She has acknowledged that she allowed her close friend and spiritual advisor, Choi Soon-sil, to interfere in government affairs by seeing confidential documents and reviewing speeches in advance. That could be considered a constitutional violation, according to analysts.

She's also under a cloud for allegedly colluding with her friend to force major South Korean companies like Hyundai and Samsung to pony up millions to personally enrich the friend. The allegations have enraged the public despite three separate apologies by the president.

While lawmakers have voted to impeach a president before, the measure was thrown out by a court. No South Korean president has failed to serve out his or her full term. Park, 64, came to power in 2013 and her term isn't set to end until February 2018.

Park, the daughter of a former military dictator, Park Chung-hee, has become the least popular president since the country moved toward democracy in the 1980s. Her approval rating has fallen into the single digits and the country has been rocked by massive protests.

"The people are happy with the decision, now the next phase has to kick in," says James Kim, of Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute. "There are nine justices and the constitution requires six or more have to be vote for the impeachment vote to stand."

The court could dismiss the impeachment move. The justices have up to 180 days to decide on whether to formally remove the president. But given the constant rallies in the street and a leadership vacuum in the meantime, most observers do not expect the court to take that long to reach a decision.

If the court removes her, then an early presidential election will take place within 60 days after she is forced from office.

Violet Kim contributed to this story.

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This is a historic day in South Korea. Just hours ago, lawmakers there voted to impeach their president, Park Geun-hye. She's been mired in a corruption scandal that has sent millions of people into the streets to protest. Now, the vote for impeachment suspends Park's power, but she is not removed from office yet, so NPR's Elise Hu is here to talk us through things. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: And she's in Seoul. What's it like to be there today?

HU: Oh, it is a huge moment, Steve. This is one of the most significant moments in South Korean democratic history, really. Lawmakers voted 234-56 in favor of the impeachment motion. What this means is President Park is temporarily stripped of her powers, and those powers are actually transferred to her appointee, the prime minister, until a constitutional court decides whether to uphold the impeachment sometime in the coming months. Now, unlike the U.S. system, there's actually no trial. The court justices will just have to decide whether to uphold or dismiss what the legislature did today.

INSKEEP: What is the case against the president?

HU: Park has admitted to allowing her close friend, a woman named Choi Soon-sil, to interfere in government affairs. Choi was actually seeing confidential documents and reviewing Park's speeches in advance. She has no official position. She has no government background. In fact, she's just a friend and spiritual adviser over the past 40 years.

INSKEEP: OK, so this has been something that Koreans have taken to heart.

HU: That's right. And that's just kind of the tip of the iceberg because Park is also under a cloud for colluding with this friend, Choi Soon-sil, to actually force or somehow extort money from South Korean companies, like Samsung and Hyundai, to ponying up up to 60 million U.S. dollars to enrich her spiritual advisor.

INSKEEP: And, of course, there have been videos of the protests that we have seen on this side of the world from Seoul. How much did public anger fuel the legislature's action here?

HU: I think it's a huge factor. Public reaction and then just weeks and weeks of negative press attention are huge reasons why President Park has herself become so isolated. The opposition parties here were, at first, reluctant to bring an impeachment motion several weeks ago, when this scandal first broke. But last weekend's rally attendance topped nearly 2 million people by organizer estimates. And the latest polls showed nearly 8 in 10 South Koreans favored impeaching their president. The public sees their president as corrupt, aloof and unable to govern. Park herself, though, we should mention, has just apologized once again to her cabinet and, by extension, the public, saying she's sorry for the distraction. But she has not actually admitted any fault in the allegations that are against her.

INSKEEP: Sorry for the distraction seems like an awfully understated way to describe your own impeachment.

HU: That's right. But, you know, again, she is accused of being kind of aloof and out of touch with the people, so this is not a huge surprise for South Korean observers. We should mention that, now that this impeachment has happened, Park is not yet removed from office. We're still waiting on a constitutional court to decide whether that happens. They have up to 180 days to decide.

INSKEEP: Elise, thanks, as always.

HU: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.