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The impeachment of Park Geun-hye, former President of South Korea, was the culmination of a political scandal involving interventions to the presidency from her aide. The impeachment vote took place on 9 December 2016, whilst 234 members in the 300-member National Assembly voting in favor of the impeachment and temporary suspension of Park Geun-hye's presidential powers and duties. Thus, Hwang Kyo-ahn, then prime minister, became acting president while the Constitutional Court of Korea was due to determine whether to accept the impeachment. The court upheld the impeachment in a unanimous 8–0 decision on 10 March 2017, removing Park from the office. A fresh election was held on 9 May 2017, electing Moon Jae-in, former leader of the Democratic Party, as the next president.
The procedure for impeachment is set out in the South Korean Constitution.
According to Article 65 Clause 1, if the President, Prime Minister, or other state council members violate the Constitution or other laws of official duty, the National Assembly can impeach them.
Clause 2 states the impeachment bill must be proposed by one third, and approved by the majority of members of the National Assembly for passage. In the case of the President, the motion must be proposed by a majority and approved by two thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly, meaning that 200 of 300 members of the parliament must approve the bill. This article also states that any person against whom a motion for impeachment has been passed shall be suspended from exercising his/her power until the impeachment has been adjudicated, and a decision on impeachment shall not extend further than removal from public office. However, impeachment shall not exempt the person impeached from civil or criminal liability for such violations.
By the Constitutional Court Act of 1988, the Constitutional Court must make a final decision within 180 days after it receives any case for adjudication, including impeachment cases. If the respondent has already left office before the pronouncement of the decision, the case is dismissed.
The last South Korean president to be subject to impeachment was Roh Moo-hyun, who was impeached by parliament in 2004 and was suspended from duties for two months. In that case, the Constitutional Court of Korea acquitted Roh and restored him to power. However, the South Korean public was by and large in support of Roh.
Revelations were made in late October 2016, that President Park Geun-hye's aide, Choi Soon-sil, who did not have an official position in the government, had used her position to seek donations of money from several business conglomerates (known as chaebol), including Samsung, Hyundai, SK Group and Lotte, to two foundations she controlled. Allegations also surfaced about Choi's access to Park's personal and work life, where it was said to have directly influenced, and interfered with the policy of, the state council. It was also suspected that she had sought political power to win past elections. Choi was arrested and Park eventually apologized three times to both the country and her cabinet, beginning in October, but protests against her continued. The protests lasted six weeks with Park's approval rating dropping to 4%, and according to an opinion poll, as of 9 December 78% of South Koreans supported her impeachment.
On 3 December, 2016, at 4:10 am, Woo Sang-ho of the Democratic Party, Park Jie-won of the People's Party, and Roh Hoe-chan of the Justice Party moved the "President (Park Geun-hye) impeachment proposal" in the National Assembly on behalf of 171 members of their respective parties and other independent representatives, on the grounds that Geun-hye had violated the Constitution and the law. Park's Saenuri Party initially preferred Park to voluntarily step down in late April, but with mounting protests, the ruling party became divided on whether Park should step down voluntarily or be impeached. On 4 December, members of Saenuri's "non-mainstream" factions declared that they would vote in favor of Park's impeachment.
The 300-member National Assembly was scheduled to vote on an impeachment bill on 9 December, at the end of the legislative session. As impeachment requires a two-thirds supermajority, at least 200 members would have to vote to impeach, in which case Park would be impeached and immediately suspended from her office. There were up to 172 opposition and independent lawmakers, which meant at least 28 of the 128 MPs from the ruling Saenuri party needed to cross the floor and join the opposition in supporting the impeachment measure for the vote to pass.
On 8 December, the South Korean National Assembly announced that the vote on the motion to impeach would take place on 9 December, at 3:00 pm local time. As planned, on 9 December South Korean MPs approved the impeachment motion by a vote of 234 in favor and 56 against in a secret ballot. The Speaker of the National Assembly (who happens to be unaffiliated with any party) abstained from the vote. Two other MPs abstained from voting and seven votes were declared invalid.
As a result of the motion's passage, President Park's powers and duties were suspended for up to 180 days while the Constitutional Court of Korea considered the validity of the impeachment motion. It was necessary for six of the nine judges on that court to agree with the impeachment for the removal to take effect.
Protesters congregated outside the National Assembly hall where the voting session was held. Some 40 family members of the victims of the sinking of MV Sewol looked on as lawmakers cast their secret ballots. Citizens who have been rallying in massive numbers against Park rejoiced at the news, while Park's supporters called the parliamentary impeachment a "witch-hunt" without concrete evidence of Park's wrongdoings.
On 10 December, hundreds of thousands gathered for a demonstration in celebration of the events.
The South Korean Constitutional Court had up to 180 days (until early June 2017) to decide on the issue. It held public hearings to hear from both sides on whether the National Assembly had followed due process and the impeachment was justified.
The Constitutional Court has been considered generally conservative, as all nine judges of the Constitutional Court were appointed during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. The Constitutional Court was to start the Preparatory Hearing on 22 December, with initial views from both sides.
The first trial focused on the whereabouts of Park Geun-hye seven hours after the Sewol ferry sinking. The administration's delayed response to the disaster led to widespread criticism in South Korea and forced Park to deny various rumors. Then, on 23 December the Justice Ministry of South Korea said that it has submitted its views on the recent parliamentary vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye to the Constitutional Court, adding that the process has met all the necessary legal requirements.
The Constitutional Court was to officially start the main hearings on Tuesday, 3 January 2017, and Park would not be required to appear for questioning. Park was absent at the first open hearing and the first session was closed after just nine minutes. The hearings were rescheduled to start on 5 January 2017. The trial heard arguments and evidence until 27 February.
On 10 March 2017, the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment in a unanimous 8–0 decision, terminating Park's presidency, the first time that a sitting president was removed from the office since the creation of the Sixth Republic of South Korea after the country's democratization. As supporters and opponents of Park gathered outside the building for the verdict, the ensuing clashes between her supporters and police resulted in injuries, three of them later died.