The Constitutional Court's landmark ruling to dissolve a minor left-leaning opposition party instantly changed South Korea's political landscape Friday, while the conservative Park Geun-hye administration sighed a breath of relief.
It is widely expected to stoke a deeper rivalry between the conservative and liberal camps in the nation's political circles notorious for ideological rifts amid six decades of division on the peninsula.
The ruling came more than a year after the government filed a petition with the court to disband the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) over allegations that some of its members, including Rep. Lee Seok-ki, plotted to overthrow the government in the event of war with North Korea.
The case drew keen public interest as it marked the first time that a political party faced dissolution since the country adopted its first constitution in 1948.
It also highlighted the importance of the North Korea factor in South Korean politics, as the ruling Saenuri Party painted the UPP as pro-North Korea forces despite its repeated denials. The party has also broadened its attack to target the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).
The ruling party accused it of bringing pro-Pyongyang forces into the National Assembly by forming a coalition with the UPP in previous parliamentary elections.
The UPP, meanwhile, denounced the government for what it claimed was an attempt to stamp out democracy.
On Friday, UPP chief Lee Jung-hee declared the "collapse" of democracy and the beginning of an "era of darkness."
"The Park Geun-hye administration has turned the Republic of Korea back into a dictatorship," she said in a press conference outside the court. "I failed to fulfill my last duty to defend democracy. To the people, I am sorry."
The ruling also stripped all five UPP lawmakers of their seats in the 300-member National Assembly.
By-elections will be held in April to elect successors to the three lawmakers who were elected directly, but the other two lawmakers who were elected on proportional representation tickets will leave their seats empty until the next general elections slated for 2016, according to the National Election Commission.
As expected, rival parties showed mixed reactions to the ruling.
"The decision of the Constitutional Court is a stern judgment on the unlawful forces of the Republic of Korea," Park Dae-chul, a spokesman of the ruling party, said in a statement. "It is a victory for the Constitution and a victory for liberal democracy."
The NPAD said it accepts the ruling "heavily" but expressed concern about a possible infringement of constitutional values.
"The most important constitutional value is the freedom of association and thought, including the freedom of political parties, and I am concerned about the future," Rep. Moon Hee-sang, NPAD's interim leader, told reporters.
The presidential office declined to comment. Many agree that if the court had rejected the government's petition, it would have dealt a serious blow to the Park administration entering its third year in power. (Yonhap)