March 10, 2017
President Park Geun-Hye Dismissed: Will South Korea Undo Its Rift With Beijing?

South Korea will hold presidential elections within a maximum of 60 days. The Constitutional Court unanimously approved the dismissal of President Park Geun-hye. It is the first time since the establishment of democracy in the country that a leader elected at the polls has been deposed. Park is implicated in the country's biggest corruption scandal and charged for meddling in the democratic process in South Korea for decades.

In a view that had aroused a great deal of expectation and was televised in an exceptional way -- cameras are not normally allowed in the constitutional halls -- the eight judges corroborated the decision of the National Assembly in December and declared that Park has "seriously harmed the democratic spirit and respect for the laws."

"President Park Geun-hye has been dismissed," said court chairman, Lee Jung-mi.

Park, 65, came to power in 2012. Park Chung-hee's daughter was the first female president of South Korea. Despite being chosen with the second highest percentage of the democratic history of the country, she leaves as the most unpopular president ever. Her approval has reached barely 5 percent, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets for weeks to demand her dismissal until December, when the National Assembly voted in favor of the dismissal.

Park Geun-hye
Protesters gathered and occupy major streets in the city center for a rally against Park Geun-Hye. [Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

She is accused of collaborating with her friend, Choi Soon-Sil, to pressure the large South Korean multinationals so that these firms would donate large sums of money to the foundations and companies Choi controlled. A good part of these amounts, according to the accusation, ended up in the pocket of the businesswoman.

Park's problems began in October, when revelations surfaced about the influence Park's confidant and adviser, Choi Soon-sil, had on the president. Choi is being tried for abuse of power and fraud. On March 6, the independent prosecutor's team investigating the corruption scandal confirmed that Park Geun-hye is suspected of alleged bribery, influence peddling, and abuse of authority.

Choi Soon-sil
Choi Soon-sil, the jailed confidante of disgraced South Korean President Park Geun-hye, appears for the first day of her trial. [Photo by Korea Pool/Getty Images]

Park has faced terrible approval ratings and massive protests since it emerged that Choi had access to confidential government documents, despite having no official office. Choi is accused of using her relationship with Park to accumulate millions of dollars in donations to her foundations and was arrested after being accused of abuse of power, fraud, and coercion.

President Park's relationship with Choi and her father, Choi Tae-min, has long been a source of controversy in South Korea. The elder Choi became close to Park after the death of her mother at the hands of a North Korean assassin in 1974, when Park's father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, was president.

According to the Korea Times, Choi founded the Church of Eternal Life in the 1970s, mixing aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, and Cheondoism, a religion of Korea that incorporates elements of shamanism. With her father's death in 1994, at the age of 82, Choi Soon-sil succeeded him as the church leader and spiritual mentor to Park, while the former first daughter became a political figure herself.

Although she has never held official office, the investigation shows that Choi had prior access to presidential speeches and other documents. In an apology televised last December, Park admitted that Choi saw "some documents" for some time after she took office, but did not specify what they contained.

The scandal has also hit Samsung, South Korea's main business conglomerate, whose heir, Lee Jae-yong, has been arrested on suspicion of bribery and embezzlement.

The confirmation of the removal of Park Geun-hye, and the calling of new elections, as provided for in the South Korean constitution, come at a difficult time for the country. North Korea is moving ahead with its weapons program, and this week, it launched four mid-range missiles to the Japanese Sea. China is threatening a commercial war, or economic sanctions, after the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile shield THAAD on South Korean soil, although Seoul and Washington say the system is aimed at preventing attacks from the north, Beijing fears it may also target its territory.

[Featured Image by KIM MIN-HEE/POOL/Getty Images]