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[From the scene] Rallies sharpen their rhetoric as Park trial nears end

Tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in central Seoul to protest for and against President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on Saturday, with the ruling on Park’s fate expected in early March.

The rival rallies have heated up and the rhetoric has become fierce in recent weeks, with only days to go until the independent counsel looking into the scandal ends its term and the Constitutional Court holds the last hearing of the impeachment trial.
 

Protesters hold signs reading
Protesters hold signs reading "Impeachment" during a rally against President Park Geun-hye in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul on Saturday. (Yonhap)

South Koreans protesting against Park called on the Constitutional Court to swiftly oust Park and the independent counsel's probe to be extended, chanting “Park Geun-hye, resign!” “Arrest Park Geun-hye.”

As of 8 p.m., 1 million people, according to rally organizers, participated in the 17th weekly rally held at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul. 

“I came here because I was so infuriated by Park’s lawyers trying to delay the proceedings at the impeachment trial,” Yoo Joon-sang, a 26-year-old graduate student, told The Korea Herald. “If the impeachment is rejected, I will take to the street again, of course.”

Park was impeached by the parliament on Dec. 9 following weeks of massive street rallies calling for Park’s ouster over a corruption scandal.

The Constitutional Court is reviewing the legality of the impeachment of Park, who is suspected of letting her close confidante Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs and colluding with her to extort donations from local conglomerates.

Park has appeared to be trying to prolong court proceedings by asking for a long list of witnesses and taking issue with the fairness of the trial to raise the chances of her avoiding removal from office.

After the departure of the acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi on March 13, Park would need only two justices of the remaining seven justices to side with her to avoid the impeachment.

“The probe by the independent counsel should be extended so that the team can continue to investigate the corruption scandal. Park Geun-hye should be removed from office and should be arrested,” said 70-year-old Kim Dong-ae. “Those attending the pro-Park rallies are just out of their mind.” 

Conservative civic groups march with Korean flags and a giant American flag during a rally against impeachment of President Park Geun-hye at Seoul Square, central Seoul on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Conservative civic groups march with Korean flags and a giant American flag during a rally against impeachment of President Park Geun-hye at Seoul Square, central Seoul on Saturday. (Yonhap)

Just some 100 meters away from the anti-Park rally, Park’s staunch supporters took to the streets as well in large numbers to oppose her impeachment as Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of her inauguration.
The rally organizers claimed that 3 million people attended the rally held in front of City Hall in central Seoul.

Despite the heightened tension, there were no reported clashes between the anti-Park and pro-Park protestors.

They blamed local media as well as the National Assembly for being “biased” and “North Korean sympathizers, chanting “Arrest the independent Counsel,” “Dissolution of the National Assembly” and “Dismissal of the impeachment” and waving Korean as well as American flags.

“The impeachment trial proceeded in violation of the Constitution and in a way that disadvantages President Park. The rule of law in this country collapsed,” said Kwak Bok-hee, 34, who has a 10-year-old child. “It is all Ko Young-tae’s fault. I won’t trust the justice system if the impeachment is upheld.”

Ko has been a key whistleblower with knowledge of the Blue House’s inner workings and Choi’s meddling in state affairs. His revelation about Choi’s editing of presidential speeches in October triggered the scandal that eventually led to Park’s impeachment.

Park’s defense team at the impeachment trial and her supporters believe that Park was wrongly framed in the scandal, which they say was sparked by the 60-year-old Choi’s adulterous affair with the 40-year-old former fencing champion Ko.

Protester Kim Min-seok, 79, called anti-Park protestors North Korean sympathizers seeking to overturn the South Korean government.

"I came here out of patriotism to protect the country. The impeachment results from pro-North Korea lawmakers colluding with media to brainwash citizens,” said Kim, who was waving a Korean flag.

Another protestor  An Young-bae, 80, said that he will set himself on fire at Gwanghwamun Square interchange if the impeachment is upheld. "There will be massive and violent conflicts whatever the outcome is."

Expectation is growing that the verdict on President Park’s fate will be made before acting Chief Justice Lee’s term ends on March 13, as the court has set Monday for the final hearing. It is expected to take about two weeks for the bench to write up a ruling after the closing arguments.

The counsel team has requested a one-month extension for its investigation and is awaiting approval from acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn. Hwang remains silent on whether he will approve the extension. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com) and Jo He-rim  (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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