SEOUL, Dec 10 – A day after South Korean lawmakers successfully impeached scandal-hit President Park Geun-Hye, hundreds of thousands of people were expected to take to the streets of Seoul on Saturday for a scheduled protest turned celebration. For the seventh straight week, the capital braced for one of the huge candle-lit rallies that have become the signature of a mass movement aimed at removing the deeply unpopular Park from office.
Although the national assembly voted to strip Park of her executive powers on Friday, activists say they intend to keep up the pressure with the impeachment still requiring final approval from the Constitutional Court – a process that could take months. And many are still adamant that the president should resign immediately and face criminal prosecution.
Until the court rules, Park’s authority is only suspended and she retains the title of president and the immunity from prosecution that goes with it. She was impeached on numerous counts of constitutional and criminal violations ranging from a failure to protect people’s lives to bribery and abuse of power.
Most of the charges stemmed from an investigation into a scandal involving the president’s long-time friend, Choi Soon-Sil, who is currently awaiting trial for fraud and embezzlement. Prosecutors named Park a suspect in the case, saying she colluded in Choi’s efforts to strong arm donations from large companies worth tens of millions of dollars.
The impeachment process was ignited and fuelled by public outrage at Park’s behaviour, with weekly mass demonstrations demanding that politicians take a pro-active role in removing her from the presidential Blue House. The National Assembly has now played its part, but the country still faces an extended period of political uncertainty at a time of slowing economic growth and elevated military tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
“The political paralysis that has enveloped governmental decision-making over the past month is likely to continue for at least the next four to eight months,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. The man charged with steering the country through these dangerous waters is a former prosecutor who has never held elected office.
As Park’s prime minister, Hwang Kyo-Ahn became the temporary guardian of her sweeping executive powers the moment after she was impeached. A stern and not particularly popular figure, Hwang is especially disliked by liberal activists for his zealous pursuit of people deemed “North Korean sympathisers” under the South’s draconian national security law.
Flung into a role he had never sought, Hwang sought to strike a reassuring tone in a televised address delivered shortly after Friday’s vote. “More than anything else, I will maintain solid national security,” he said, stressing that the military was prepared for any provocation from Pyongyang.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests this year and multiple missile launches, prompting South Korea to agree to host a sophisticated US anti-missile system – despite protests from China. On the economic front, central Bank of Korea governor Lee Ju-Yeol formed a task force to monitor volatility in the financial and foreign-exchange markets around the clock.
Finance Minister Yoo Il-Ho held an emergency meeting of key officials to discuss policy responses to potential challenges arising from Park’s impeachment. Contributing to the general anxiety is the presidential power transition in the United States, a key economic and military ally which has nearly 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea. — AFP