South Korea’s Constitution Court ruled to uphold the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Friday morning, making her the first democratically elected president to be removed from office in the country’s history.
Two people died in skirmishes that broke out following the verdict and about 30 protesters and police officers were injured in violent clashes.
Park was impeached in December on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from businesses and abusing her powers in a scheme with her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil.
With the ruling, Park is immediately removed from office and South Korea is required to hold a presidential election within 60 days. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has served as interim president during the impeachment process, will remain as acting president until the election.
"The negative effects of the president's actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the Constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large," acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
An investigation into the political scandal that brought Park Geun-hye down has returned 30 indictments, including the head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong. Lee’s trial for bribery and embezzlement began on Thursday, in a court case being billed as the trial of the century.
The investigation directly implicated Park Geun-hye. With the impeachment upheld, she has lost her presidential immunity and is now vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
Park is the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who led the country as dictator from 1963 until his assassination in 1979. Park Geun-hye began her term in February 2013, and was the first female president in South Korea. The ruling stripped her of the right to be buried next to her father at the national cemetery in Seoul and of privileges including an estimated $10,000 monthly pension.
Millions of Koreans had taken to the streets in protest as the scandal first began brewing in October, and Park’s popularity plummeted to four percent. She had already been deeply unpopular for her handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster that left almost 300 dead.
Park’s impeachment and the current trial of Samsung’s Lee highlight the deep dissatisfaction that many in South Korea have grown to feel towards political and business elites, many of whom have been seen as corrupt and untouchable.
While the decision to uphold the impeachment was expected, observers are now waiting to see what kind of reaction spills over from this political crisis.
“I think most South Koreans were braced for this outcome,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. “The main question is whether Park supporters can peacefully support the result, and then attention will quickly turn to the presidential campaign. We need to watch for statements by the candidates and [see] who is in the streets tomorrow in Seoul.”
In the aftermath of the verdict, both Park supporters and opponents held heated rallies near the courthouse. Skirmishes broke out that left two men believed to be pro-Park protesters dead and a number of others injured, police reported. A man in his 70s died from head wounds after he fell from a police bus in front of the court and a second man died after bleeding heavily, the Associated Press reported.
Thousands of Park’s supporters hit police officers with flag poles and climbed on buses following the verdict, according to the AP.
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded South Korea's actions.
"Under the most difficult circumstances, South Korea has demonstrated the strength of its democratic institutions," McCain said in a statement. "The peaceful transition of power to Acting President Hwang Kyo Anh and the execution of today’s Constitutional Court verdict gives me great confidence that South Korea will emerge from this moment of challenge with renewed strength."
The statement added: "The South Korean people should know that the United States remains firmly committed to our alliance. The United States and South Korea must continue to work to strengthen economic and security cooperation between our two countries, especially as it relates to defending against North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats."