Updated 2:10 a.m. ET
The rather swift downfall of South Korea's first female president is complete. A panel of judges has ruled unanimously that a December impeachment by lawmakers should be upheld, immediately ousting President Park Geun-hye from office.
Park loses her $10,000-a-month government pension, but more importantly, immunity from prosecution. So she could face criminal charges for the alleged involvement in corruption and bribery that led to her downfall.
After the ruling, pro and anti-Park protesters outside the courtroom clashed. Police say at least two people were killed in the violence.
Park, 65, was a trailblazer among East Asian nations as a female head of state. But her now truncated term — she served four years of a five-year term — was mired in controversy and accusations that she was aloof and autocratic. Despite weeks of hearings, Park never appeared before the court for questioning. Instead, her lawyers read a statement: "I feel crushed by all these misunderstandings and allegations," Park said.
The allegations stem from a political scandal that has rocked South Korea since the fall and touches nearly every power center in the country. Park is accused of letting Choi Soon-sil, a family friend of 40 years who had no official title or experience, edit speeches, install appointees and secretly make policy decisions. Together, they are accused of pressuring the country's major conglomerates, such as Samsung, to give tens of millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations started by Choi.
Park family legacy
Park rose to power buoyed by voters' memories of her father Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who led South Korea from 1963 until 1979.
Her political life began after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer during a failed attempt on her father's life. Park was studying in Paris at the time but returned to South Korea to serve as acting first lady while still in her early twenties.
In 1998, she won an election to become a member of the National Assembly representing the Park family stronghold of Daegu. She then led the nation's conservative political party, Saenuri, narrowly lost a presidential bid in 2007 and later emerged victorious in the race in 2012. The win itself was mired in controversy. As The New Yorker has detailed, the South Korean National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Defense covertly posted "some 22 million tweets and thousands of online messages accusing Park's opponents, of, among other things, being North Korean sympathizers."
It is ironic, then, that digital communications led to her downfall. A tablet reportedly owned by Park's friend and longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil, was leaked into the hands of journalists last fall. Choi, the daughter of a self-proclaimed cult leader, was allegedly secretly running South Korea's government through Park. The tablet and subsequent discoveries broke open a wide-ranging scandal that has led to the jailing of the head of Samsung Electronics, scrutiny of dozens of politicians and businessmen and now, the removal of the head of state.
Prosecutors say they have evidence Choi and Park worked in concert to extort some $70 million in bribes from Samsung, Hyundai and other top Korean corporations for nonprofits that served as fronts for private slush funds. They also allege Choi helped choose Park's ministers and clothes. Park has apologized several times to the nation for not closely monitoring her associates, but has said she never did anything for personal gain.
Elections in 60 days
The move by the court triggers a snap presidential election, which is expected to be held in early May. Public opinion polls so far favor the leader of the opposition Democratic party, which is more progressive in its social views and less hawkish on North Korea.
Jihye Lee contributed to this story.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And those are sounds from the city of Seoul this morning, celebration in the streets following a historic ruling in South Korea that has ousted that nation's president from office. The highest court in the country upheld a vote by lawmakers to impeach President Park Geun-hye over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. NPR's Elise Hu has been covering this story, and she's in Seoul. Good morning, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So how big a deal is this?
HU: It's huge, David. It's historic. She is the first South Korean leader to be removed from office by impeachment. And Park is making history for the second time because she was also the nation's first female president. This ouster here is also a big deal in the context of who Park Geun-hye is. She's the daughter of the country's longtime dictator, Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for a lot of the 1960s and 1970s. Older generations of Koreans have a lot of nostalgia for him, which actually helped the younger Park's political career. But now her legacy is mired in scandal and this constitutional defeat. Park will have to return to life as a private citizen. And the placeholder South Korean leaders, who are led now by an acting president, are calling for unity in this moment.
GREENE: Well, it sounds like what many people want to do in this moment is celebrate. I mean, you were outside that courtroom. People seemed jubilant.
HU: Well, they're relieved more than anything else because the wait for this impeachment trial and decision has lasted several months, so the anticipation was really thick. And thousands of Park supporters, of course, aren't so ecstatic about this decision. They crowded on one street in front of the court. Park opponents took up a different street. Both sides had giant screens that are used for outdoor concerts to stream the ruling's announcement. And on the anti-Park, pro-impeachment side, once that decision was read, it was really like being at the end of a college sports championship where the crowd just goes crazy. Take a listen.
GREENE: My God, that sounds like a winning touchdown being scored. Amazing.
HU: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. But on the other side, Park supporters reacted quite emotionally and some of them violently, breaking police vehicle windows. So far, a news photographer has been injured and two demonstrators have died in the chaos outside the courthouse.
GREENE: Elise, you've been covering this story for months now. For people who haven't been following every twist and turn, remind us how we got here.
HU: President Park is actually named as a criminal suspect in South Korea's largest-ever political corruption scandal. She's accused of secretly entrusting government decisions to an old friend of hers named Choi Soon-sil who held no official title. And she's also accused of working in concert with this Choi to extort some $70 million in bribes from major companies, like Samsung, that wanted to stay in the government's favor. Park herself has denied the charges, but since prosecutors have already named her as an accomplice, she could now face criminal charges. She was previously immune from them as president. Now that immunity is gone; so is her $10,000 a month government pension.
GREENE: So what happens next?
HU: There's no president. There's this acting president. And campaign season has essentially begun because this decision triggers a snap election, which is expected to happen in early May. The Park government - her ministers and her prime minister - will continue until the new leader is elected. All the while, of course, there's the question of North Korea and its advancing missile program. And the U.S. is beginning to deploy a controversial missile defense system in South Korea. So what this means for a lot of the security questions in the region is an open question.
GREENE: OK. It is official this morning, the president of South Korea has been ousted from office. That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Thanks, Elise.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.