When former President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached by the National Assembly back in 2004, the voting session resembled a bar scene with brawls, lots of yelling and even some crying.
But the same chamber witnessed a drastic change of mood on Friday when 234 out of 299 lawmakers cast their votes in favor of impeaching President Park Geun-hye. During the 70-minute session, most of the lawmakers stayed calm, sitting quietly and reflecting on the gravity of their actions.
When the result was announced, there was a shout of surprise and joy from the opposition lawmakers who campaigned for Park’s ouster. But other than that, the floor was quiet until they exited in an orderly manner.
“Today’s session is not a political battle where one wins and the other loses. It is only a sad history of our Constitution,” Rep. Woo Sang-ho, the main opposition Democratic Party’s floor leader, told his fellow lawmaker before they entered the chamber.
Back where observers were seated, the mood was quite different.
Among ordinary citizens who watched the voting session were a group of those who lost their loved ones when the ferry Sewol sank in 2014.
The tragedy left over 300 dead or missing, most of them high school students. The family members and civic groups have blamed President Park for neglecting her duties to rescue them during the nation’s worst maritime tragedy. It was one of the charges that Park would face during her impeachment trial at the Constitutional Court.
When the National Assembly Speaker Rep. Chung Sye-kyun announced the passage of the impeachment bill, most of them rejoiced. Some of them wept, as if they couldn’t believe the result.
“It was victory for the country and the people who took to the streets to protest against the president,” Lee Chang-hyeon, one of the bereaved family members, told The Korea Herald.
Before the crucial vote, tension was palpable both inside and outside the National Assembly.
With a historic ballot to decide the fate of the Park presidency scheduled for 3 p.m., protestors rallied in front of the main gate of the parliamentary compound.
Inside, political parties held a flurry of meetings, reconfirming their commitment to ousting the embattled president or making a last-ditch effort to salvage her administration.
“Impeachment is the way to save the country and people’s lives. Citizens, who hold national sovereignty, have already impeached the president (in their minds),” said Rep. Choo Mi-ae, chairwoman of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
Hundreds of citizens gathered in front of the front gate, making impromptu speeches on a makeshift stage and singing Korean folk songs.
They also held up yellow flags bearing various messages condemning President Park. Placards read “immediate resignation” and “prompt punishment.”
Police said that they dispatched 13,500 officers to the protest scene.
Conflict erupted as a farmer drove a tractor to the main road in front of the National Assembly building packed with protestors. As police blocked protestors walking from another part of the area from joining the protestors at the front gate, protestors chanted “guarantee peaceful rallies” and “open the way.”
A dozen police buses lined up to block access to the parliamentary compound, a preventive measure in case angry protesters tried to break into the parliamentary buildings.
The Assembly had decided to shut down the buildings if the impeachment vote fell through.
“It is a bit cold, but I had to come because it is unfair that someone born into a rich and powerful family becomes resident, ruins our country and gets away with her wrongdoings,” said 43-year-old homemaker Ko Yang-hee at the front gate of the National Assembly building.
“At least if Park is impeached, that is justice served to some extent. I want my children to grow up in a fair and just society,” she said.
On the other side of the National Assembly building’s front gate, Park’s loyal supporters gathered to voice their objections to the impeachment. They also held a rally in front of the Saenuri Party headquarters in the morning.
Cheong Wa Dae remained quiet from the morning, with the president and secretariat members opting not to appear in public or make official remarks.
Presidential Chief of Staff Han Gwang-ok chaired a meeting of senior secretaries in the morning to discuss countermeasures to possible impeachment.
“All we can do is keep watching,” said an official, under condition of anonymity. “All senior secretaries have pledged to hold the fort so as to minimize confusion in state affairs.”
Meanwhile, Park was said to be in her presidential residence from the morning, staying away from the operational offices and watching the situation in Yeouido via television.
The parliamentary plenary session started promptly at 3 p.m. and the vote commenced at 3:25 p.m.
To impeach the embattled head of state, at least 200 lawmakers from the 300-member National Assembly needed to support the motion.
And the result was a landslide 234-56 victory of the opposition. With that, President Park became the second president in Korea, after President Roh, to face an impeachment trial.
If the Constitutional Court endorses the parliamentary sanction, she will become the first to be dismissed by the parliament.
By Yeo Jun-suk, Jo He-rim, Ock Hyun-ju and Yoon Min-sik