Park Geun-hye has become the first democratically elected South Korean president to be forced from office, after the country’s constitutional court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her over a corruption and cronyism scandal that could see her face criminal charges.
South Korea now has 60 days to elect a new leader after the court’s eight justices unanimously supported the impeachment motion, passed overwhelmingly in December by the national assembly, which accused Park of extortion, bribery, abuse of power and leaking government secrets.
The ruling, delivered live on television on Friday morning amid tight security in the streets outside the constitutional court building in Seoul, will see Park immediately forfeit the executive immunity to criminal indictment she enjoyed as president.
It also brings an abrupt and ignominious end to her four years in office – the most dramatic development yet in a scandal that has gripped and horrified millions of South Koreans in equal measure.
Chief justice Lee Jung-Mi started reading the verdict shortly after 11am, as supporters and opponents of Park massed outside the court building. The president’s actions had “seriously impaired the spirit of … democracy and the rule of law”, said Lee. “President Park Geun-Hye … has been dismissed.
“Her actions betrayed the people’s confidence. They are a grave violation of law, which cannot be tolerated.”
Park, whose presidential powers were frozen and passed to the acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, in December, will immediately step down while preparations are made to elect her successor.
The 65-year-old must now await her legal fate as the most unpopular South Korean leader since the country became a democracy in the late 1980s. Since the impeachment vote in December, she has remained in the president’s official compound, the Blue House, but must now leave. She did not appear in court on Friday.
The scandal has ensnared senior government officials and business figures, including Lee Jae-yong, the acting head of Samsung, who denied bribery, corruption and other charges at the first hearing in his trial on Thursday.
But for South Koreans who greeted news of the scandal last summer by taking to the streets in their millions every weekend, Park, the blue-blooded daughter of a former South Korean dictator, was always the prize target.
Park’s impeachment at the end of last year came after months of deeply damaging revelations about her relationship with Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend with whom she is suspected of conspiring to secure donations worth tens of millions of dollars from major companies for foundations set up by Choi.
Park is also accused of allowing Choi to secretly meddle in state affairs, including economic policy and Seoul’s relations with the North Korean regime.
Samsung donated 43bn won (£30m/US$36m) – more than any other firm – to the foundations and allegedly gave millions of euros to Choi to fund her daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. The firm has strongly denied allegations that it expected political favours from Park in return.
Choi is accused of using her close ties with Park to force local firms to “donate” nearly US$70m to the non-profit foundations, which Choi allegedly used for personal gain.
Park and Choi have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The court found Park had broken the law by allowing Choi to interfere in state affairs, and had breached rules on public servants’ activities. “The president has to use her power based on the constitution and the laws and have the details of her work shown transparently so that people can evaluate her works,” said Lee.
“But Park concealed completely Choi’s meddling in state affairs and denied it whenever suspicions over the act emerged and even criticised those who raised the suspicions.”
Park, whose family background and knack for winning elections propelled her to the presidential Blue House on a wave of public support in late 2012, will leave office almost a year shy of the end of her single five-year term.
Choi’s father, the religious cult leader Choi Tae-min, mentored Park after her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was assassinated by a North Korean sympathiser in 1974, forcing the 22-year-old Park to take on the role of acting first lady. Her father, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, was killed by his own chief of security five years later.
Now that Park’s immediate fate is clear, public anger is expected to focus again on the political influence – and extraordinary wealth – enjoyed by the the most powerful figures in South Korea’s family-run conglomerates, or chaebol.
While tens of thousands of Park loyalists have held demonstrations calling for her reinstatement in recent weeks – and vowing “civil war” if she were ousted – there are growing demands for legal action to be taken against tycoons from other South Korean companies caught up in the scandal, including Hyundai and Lotte.
The election could see the installment of a liberal leader after almost a decade of conservative rule under Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
Opinion polls show that that Moon Jae-in, a former MP from the opposition Democratic party of Korea who lost the 2012 election to Park, is the current favourite to succeed her when South Koreans go to the polls, most likely on 9 May.
Moon has called for dialogue with North Korea to address its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, in contrast to Park’s hard line against the regime in Pyongyang.
Significantly, Moon, a former human rights lawyer, has vowed to “reconsider” plans to deploy a US missile defence system this year, amid objections from China.
Park is not the first South Korean leader to have been impeached by the national assembly. The liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, was impeached in 2004, but was reinstated two months later after the constitutional court said allegations of minor election law violations and incompetence did not justify his removal.