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Court battle for Park’s impeachment begins

South Korea’s Constitutional Court held the first hearing Tuesday to review the legitimacy of President Park Geun-hye‘s impeachment over a corruption scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil. But with Park’s absence, the session lasted just nine minutes. 

Constitutional Court Chief Park Han-chul (Yonhap)
Constitutional Court Chief Park Han-chul (Yonhap)

The court’s nine justices, headed by chief Park Han-chul, scheduled the next hearing for Thursday. The court is allowed to proceed despite her absence, according to the Constitutional Court Act, with Park represented by her lawyers at the upcoming sessions.  

The court chief Park asked for cooperation from both the parliament and the president to reconstruct the facts during the forthcoming proceedings. 

“The court will do its best to hear the impeachment case sternly and fairly,” he said during the hearing that began at 2 p.m.

The top court has until early June to decide whether to uphold or overturn Park’s impeachment. 

The National Assembly voted to oust Park on Dec. 9, stripping her of substantial executive powers, over suspicions that she allowed Choi to meddle in state affairs and colluded with her to extort money and favors from local conglomerates. She is also accused of failing to perform her duty to protect the lives of citizens during the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. 

Outside the courtroom, members of the parliamentary impeachment committee criticized the president for holding a press meeting on Sunday, calling her self-defensive action outside the courtroom “improper” and “impolite.”

“It is a basic courtesy to reveal all the facts inside the courtroom (to justices) rather than outside the courtroom to reporters,” Rep. Kwon Seong-dong of the ruling Saenuri Party said in a press briefing. “We will do our best to prompt a rapid and accurate ruling by verifying evidence and interrogating witnesses at the court.”

Park held a press meeting on Sunday, appearing for the first time in public since her impeachment by the parliament. Park denied all the allegations, describing them “fabrication and falsehood” and saying she was totally “framed.”

Park’s lawyers said that they were not informed in advance of the president’s meeting with reporters. They also said that Park would not likely appear for the upcoming hearings.  

The impeachment trial is likely to gain momentum Thursday, with key figures tied to the scandal expected to appear to testify. 

In the hearing scheduled for Thursday, the court is set to bring in two of Park’s closest secretaries -- Lee Jae-man and Ahn Bong-geun – and two administrative staff – Lee Young-sun and Yoon Jeon-choo -- as witnesses to clarify suspicions of Park’s abuse of authority. 

On the Jan. 10 hearing, other key suspects -- Choi, former presidential aides An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong -- are expected to testify before the justices. Among other charges, Choi is suspected of conspiring with Park and An to coerce donations from local conglomerates for foundations she controlled. Jeong is suspected of leaking government secrets to Choi.

When witnesses fail to attend the hearings without justifiable reasons, they could face a jail term of up to one year and penalty of up to 1 million won. 

The Constitutional Court has also signaled that it will accelerate the court proceedings mindful of the “gravity” of the situation, holding hearings at least twice a week. The nine-judge court is under growing pressure to make a decision swiftly, as the terms for chief justice as well as the judge Lee Jung-mi are slated to end on Jan. 31 and March 31, respectively. 

The previous impeachment trial of former President Roh Moo-hyun, which reinstated him, was concluded on the 63rd day, two weeks after the final hearing. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (