South Korea Set to Take Final Step to Impeach President

  • Lawmakers introduce motion to impeach Park over scandal
  • Opposition to offer resignation en masse if measure fails

Motion to Impeach Park to Be Introduced

South Korean lawmakers introduced a motion to impeach President Park Geun-hye over influence-peddling allegations, completing the last procedural step toward deciding her fate in a vote Friday.

The 40-page measure accusing Park of bribery, abuse of power and violating her constitutional duties was brought before the National Assembly at 2:45 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Parliament now has at least 24 hours to review the motion before it goes to a vote.

Earlier, the two main opposition parties had collected resignation letters from their members, and vowed to offer them en masse if the impeachment attempt failed. The move was aimed at pressuring members of the ruling Saenuri Party to follow suit, People’s Party spokesman Son Kum-ju said.

Democratic Party of Korea leader Choo Mi-ae said in a tweet that signers of the letter would “offer to resign to take political responsibility after failing to uphold the people’s will to impeach” the president.

The motion was endorsed by 171 lawmakers, just 29 shy of the number of votes necessary to clear the parliament. A faction of Park’s ruling Saenuri Party has pledged to join the opposition, which would give it just enough support to pass.

Read more: The influence-peddling scandal rocking South Korea

Saenuri’s floor leader Chung Jin-suk said after meeting Park on Tuesday that the president was “ready” to accept the result. If 200 or more lawmakers vote in favor, Park would be suspended from power while the constitutional court takes as long as 180 days to review the move. If the court agrees, a presidential election would be held in 60 days, with the prime minister serving as interim leader.

The impeachment motion follows weeks of growing outrage in South Korea over allegations that Park’s longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, used their relationship to secure tens of millions of dollars of donations from some of the country’s biggest corporations. The case -- and what it has revealed about relations between the country’s ruling elite -- has stirred popular anger over corruption and a lack of jobs.

Repeated denials and apologies from Park -- as well a last-ditch offer to step down in April -- failed to keep hundreds of thousands of protesters from gathering outside the presidential compound in Seoul. Amid the drumbeat of media exposes, demonstrations and legislative hearings, enough members of the ruling party defected to raise the threat of impeachment. Her approval rate has sunk into the single digits.

Protesters set fire to a flag with a symbol of the ruling Saenuri Party during a rally urging the impeachment of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye in Seoul on December 7, 2016.South Korea's scandal-hit Park said on December 6 she would accept the result of a looming and possibly lengthy impeachment process, but defied pressure to resign immediately. / AFP / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters set fire to a flag with a symbol of the ruling Saenuri Party urging the impeachment of Park Geun-hye on Dec. 7.
Photographer: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

‘Losing Confidence’

“By losing public confidence, Park can’t run the government and seek public agreement and support for major policies,” the impeachment motion said. It accuses Park of letting Choi -- and her family and associates -- meddle in state affairs “extensively and seriously,” even though they held no government positions.

Park, South Korea’s first female president, was elected to a single, five-year term in 2012. She is the daughter of military dictator Park Chung Hee, whose policies are credited with spawning the country’s postwar economic miracle and who was murdered by his intelligence chief in 1979.

‘Common Sense’

Should lawmakers approve the motion, the National Assembly speaker is required to send it to the constitutional court “immediately,” according to South Korean law.

Shin Pyung, a constitutional expert at Kyungpook National University, said he was confident the court’s ruling would be in line with public sentiment. “The key message in the motion is that Park doesn’t have a good understanding of the spirit of the constitution,” he said.

Given the significance of the issue, the court is likely to be move fast, possibly ruling before the end of January, Shin said, adding that the court isn’t likely to wait for the outcome of an ongoing investigation by a special prosecutor.

The court’s head justice is leaving office at the end of January and another justice’s term is up in mid-March, possibly leaving only seven in office should the ruling be delayed beyond March. The motion needs at least six affirmative votes to be cleared.

Sewol Disaster

Accusations against Park include violating her duty to uphold the constitution and abusing her right to appoint public servants. She is also accused of bribery, coercion, leaking of classified information and other wrongdoing. 

The impeachment motion also raises one of the most emotionally charged claims levied against Park -- that she neglected her presidential duties during the Sewol ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead in 2014. Questions about her whereabouts during the first critical hours of the disaster, which killed mostly high school students, has fueled anger among anti-Park protesters.

Impeachment supporters in Saenuri sought to remove references to the Sewol disaster because, they argued, doing so would draw more votes to their side. The opposition introduced the original bill anyway.

On Wednesday, Park’s former chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, said he didn’t know the president’s schedule that day. The Hankyoreh newspaper reported Tuesday that Park had called in her hairdresser a few hours after learning of the disaster and spent 90 minutes getting her hair done. The presidential office said Wednesday that two hairdressers visited Park, but she spent 20 minutes with them.

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