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South Korean Judges Uphold President Park Geun-hye's Impeachment

Supporters of South Korean President Park Geun-hye stage a rally opposing her impeachment near the Constitutional Court in Seoul on Friday. People gathered ahead of the court ruling on whether Park would be removed from office over a corruption scandal. The sign reads "South Korean President Park Geun-hye." Recently polling showed a 3-1 margin in favor of impeachment.

The rather swift downfall of South Korea's first female president is complete. A panel of judges has ruled unanimously that a December impeachment by lawmakers should be upheld, immediately ousting President Park Geun-hye from the office.

Park loses her $10,000-a-month government pension, but more importantly, immunity from prosecution. So she could face criminal charges for the alleged involvement in corruption and bribery that led to her downfall.

Park, 65, was a trailblazer among East Asian nations as a woman head of state. But her now truncated term — she served four years of a five-year term — was mired in controversy and accusations that she was aloof and autocratic. Despite weeks of hearings, Park never appeared before the court for questioning. Instead, her lawyers read a statement: "I feel crushed by all these misunderstandings and allegations," Park said.

The allegations stem from a political scandal that has rocked South Korea since the fall and touches nearly every power center in the country. Park is accused of letting Choi Soon-sil, a family friend of 40 years who had no official title or experience, edit speeches, install appointees and secretly make policy decisions. Together, they are accused of pressuring the country's major conglomerates, such as Samsung, to give tens of millions to non-profit organizations started by Choi.

Park family legacy

Park rose to power buoyed by voters' memories of her father Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who led South Korea from 1963 until 1979.

Her political life began after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer during a failed attempt on her father's life. Park was studying in Paris at the time but returned to South Korea to serve as acting first lady while still in her early twenties.

In 1998, she won an election to become a member of the National Assembly representing the Park family stronghold of Daegu. She then led the nation's conservative political party, Saenuri, narrowly lost a presidential bid in 2007 and later emerged victorious in the race in 2012. The win itself was mired in controversy. As The New Yorker has detailed, the South Korean National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Defense covertly posted "some 22 million tweets and thousands of online messages accusing Park's opponents, of, among other things, being North Korean sympathizers."

The tablet

It is ironic, then, that digital communications led to her downfall. A tablet reportedly owned by Park's friend and longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil, was leaked into the hands of journalists last fall. Choi, the daughter of a self-proclaimed cult leader, was allegedly secretly running South Korea's government through Park. The tablet and subsequent discoveries broke open a wide-ranging scandal that has led to the jailing of the head of Samsung Electronics, scrutiny of dozens of politicians and businessmen, and now, the removal of the head of state.

Prosecutors say they have evidence Choi and Park worked in concert to extort some $70 million in bribes from Samsung, Hyundai and other top Korean corporations for non-profits that served as fronts for private slush funds. They also allege Choi helped choose Park's ministers and clothes. Park has apologized several times to the nation for not closely monitoring her associates, but has said she never did anything for personal gain.

Elections in 60 days

The move by the court triggers a snap presidential election, which is expected to be held in early May. Public opinion polls so far favor the leader of the opposition Democratic party, which is more progressive in its social views and less hawkish on North Korea.

Jihye Lee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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