Protestors demanding that South Korean President Park Geun-hye step down marched on Saturday for a seventh straight weekend, a day after parliament voted overwhelmingly to impeach her and put the fate of her presidency in the hands of a nine-judge court. The crowd estimated by organisers at 200,000 packing a large square in downtown Seoul was significantly smaller than in recent weeks but festive, with performances of music between speeches calling for the early removal of Park.
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“We demand that the Constitutional Court make a decision of conscience and justice and do not act against the will of the people,” Jung Kang-ja, one of the leaders of a coalition of civic groups backing the rally, said in a speech. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who became acting president late on Friday after the impeachment vote, called on authorities to ensure that rallies are peaceful and sought to calm anxiety over national security and to reassure financial markets “So far, financial and foreign exchange markets have been relatively stable and there are no signs of unusual movements by the North, but all public servants should bear vigilance in mind as they conduct their duties,” Hwang told a meeting.
Park’s powers were suspended after 234 of parliament’s 300 members voted to impeach her, meaning more than 60 members of her own party backed the motion against her. The impeachment, which has to be reviewed and approved by the Constitutional Court within 180 days to remove Park from office, sets the stage for her to become the country’s first elected leader to be ousted in disgrace.
Park, 64, the daughter of a former military ruler, is accused of colluding with a friend and a former aide, both of whom prosecutors have indicted, to pressure big businesses to donate to foundations set up to back her policy initiatives. Park, who is serving a single five-year term ending in February 2018, has denied wrongdoing but apologised for carelessness in her ties with her friend, Choi Soon-sil.
For seven consecutive weekends, huge crowds have gathered in central Seoul in demonstrations calling for Park to step down. On Saturday, some restaurants in central Seoul were offering “impeachment discounts,” according to TV channel YTN.
The candle-lit rallies have been peaceful, with parents bringing children and many demonstrators using smartphone apps with candlelight images and maps for bathrooms. Lee Youl-woo, a 48-year-old office worker, was at a booth giving out free LED candles. “The impeachment was passed but this is the beginning, not the end,” he said.
The rally capped a historic week that saw the heads of nine of the country’s biggest conglomerates subjected to a 13-hour grilling by a parliamentary panel on whether they sought favours by agreeing to pay into the foundations controlled by Choi. “Imprison Jay Y. Lee,” said a sign held at the rally by Democratic Party presidential hopeful Lee Jae-myeong, referring to the scion of the Samsung Group, who was among the nine.
None of the companies has been accused of wrongdoing. If Park leaves office early, an election must be held within 60 days. She would also lose presidential immunity from prosecution. Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice in their investigation. Park’s approval rating is just 5 percent, according to a poll released before Friday’s impeachment vote, but some Koreans turned out to support her at a march earlier on Saturday.
“Nothing has been proven yet,” said Kim Han-gone, a 49-year-old office worker carrying an “against impeachment” sign. “After the investigation, after everything’s been revealed, it’s not too late to impeach then,” he said. The United States, which has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, was in close contact with South Korea and remained a strong ally, the White House said late on Friday.
While North Korean state media has been scathing in its coverage of South Korea’s presidential scandal, which erupted in October, the official KCNA news agency’s first report on the impeachment was a simple three-sentence item on Saturday.