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Will President Park face impeachment?

As President Park Geun-hye appears determined to cling to her Constitution-backed power as head of state, those who want her ouster are being increasingly forced to consider a Constitutional method of removing her from office: impeachment.

A few outspoken liberals have been calling for Park’s impeachment from the very beginning of the scandal surrounding the conservative president and her friend for 40 years Choi Soon-sil, but most in the liberal opposition bloc are reluctant to talk about the possibility of the extreme measure.  

Ironically, the embattled president herself and some members of her governing Saenuri Party seem to prefer the scenario involving impeachment. 

“Impeachment is something that the legislative body discusses in accordance with the Constitution. There is nothing we can do about it,” said the presidential office Tuesday.

To understand the rationale behind the opposition’s aversion to an impeachment campaign as well as Park’s preference for it, one has to look into the complicated process -- as described in the Korean Constitution -- of impeaching and removing a sitting president. It is quite different from that of the US.

Impeachment procedure 

First, the impeachment motion.

To set in motion an effort to impeach the president, South Korea’s unicameral, 300-member National Assembly must pass a motion for it by a two-third vote.

Park’s foes -- three liberal opposition groups and liberal-minded independents -- have 171 votes, 29 short of the required quorum. This means that assuming there is no dissenting votes from the opposition bloc, at least 29 Saenuri members have to agree to impeach Park.

Within Saenuri, which has 121 lawmakers, voices calling for Park’s early departure from the presidential office are growing. Yet, it is unclear how many of its legislators would cast their votes across the aisle to support an opposition-led motion.

A poll by a local daily, released earlier this week, put the number of lawmakers willing to vote for Park’s forced ouster at 18.

Among them could be former party leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung, as he has publicly called for Park’s impeachment. 

Once the motion is through, the Constitutional Court will determine the president’s fate. In the US, the final decision is made by the Senate.
Saenuri floor leader Rep. Chung Jin-suk (left) shakes hands with his opposition counterpart Woo Sang-ho during a plenary session at the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Saenuri floor leader Rep. Chung Jin-suk (left) shakes hands with his opposition counterpart Woo Sang-ho during a plenary session at the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap)
In Korea, the top court will deliberate whether the president has violated the Constitution or law to deserve a dismissal. So, the court’s finding could deviate from the public opinion.

A decision to unseat Park requires consent from at least six of its nine judges.

The problem is that the ideological composition of the judges is largely stacked against the president’s foes. Currently, seven out of the nine members are considered to be leaning right.  By law, the president, chief justice of the Supreme Court and the National Assembly can each appoint three judges.

To make it even worse, two of the incumbent judges are to retire early next year. The looming vacancies could work against those seeking to oust Park, because they would need consent from six out of seven, not nine, judges.

The court must offer their ruling within 180 days upon receiving the motion from the Assembly. 

While the court deliberates, the prime minister replaces the role of the president. If the legislative body fails to appoint the nation’s second-in-command, incumbent Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, appointed by Park, would run the state.

The president is removed from office immediately, once the court approves of the motion. The nation would then have to elect a new president within 60 days. The newly elected president is granted a five-year term regardless of how much time was left in the outgoing president’s term. 

Risk of pursuing impeachment

There are three reasons for the opposition parties’ reluctance to impeach the president: Difficulty in proving President Park’s violation of the Constitution, a high threshold of passing an impeachment motion at the Constitutional Court, and uncertainty surrounding an arduous impeachment process.

After all, the key is not the public sentiment or the legislature’s act of no-confidence in Park. The Constitutional Court will have to be convinced that Park’s wrongdoings are grave enough to warrant her removal.

Among the allegations facing Park now is that she abused her power to extract money from conglomerates and leak confidential document to her longtime friend Choi.

But the prosecutors have yet to find direct evidence linking the charges to the president herself and plans for a face-to-face investigation with Park have been stalled. So far, the president has admitted to the fact that she sought some help from Choi when writing her speeches.

Outside of criminal charges against the president, Constitutional experts noted that Park violated the basic law for disrupting fundamental democratic values -- such as rule of law -- by allowing an unelected individual like Choi to meddle in state affairs.

“Impeaching the president can be justified if the president loses her ability to manage state affairs,” said Han Sang-hee, a law professor at Seoul-based Konkuk University. “In that regard, I think we have enough case to pursue the impeachment.”

Another predicament lies in the high threshold for the impeachment motion to get passed by the Constitutional Court, whose nine members are mostly dominated by judges elected by President Park and her conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak.

For the impeachment to take place, six or more judges need to approve the motion. Currently, six members were appointed by the two conservative presidents and their governing Saenuri Party.

And the judges are inclined to apply strict standards when reviewing the impeachment motion. In 2004, the late President Roh Moo-hyun was subject to impeachment for violation of political neutrality, however, the judges rejected the motion, saying the allegation was not “grave enough” for the impeachment.

The last reason is that impeachment is a time-consuming process. Even if the independent counsel is launched this week after the lawmakers pass the bill aiming to name the special prosecutors, the lawmakers have to wait up to 120 days until the prosecutors announce the investigation result.

Combined with the up to 180 days of legal review conducted by the Constitutional Court and 60 days of transition period until the nation elects a new president, the whole process would last up to 360 days and end when the president has almost finished her five-year term.

Opposition parties are concerned that the time-consuming process will aggravate the political deadlock and attract public protest that could hurt their political fate. In 2004, the then opposition parties were defeated in general elections after they pushed to impeach late President Roh.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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