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South Korean Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Impeach President

South Korean President Park Geun-hye is shown during a Nov. 29 televised address. The country's first female leader was impeached on Friday.

South Korean lawmakers voted 234-56 on Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye. A constitutional court will now decide whether to remove from office the country's first female leader, who's been mired in a corruption scandal that has paralyzed the country's political system.

"Regardless of the opinions in favor or against the impeachment, the public is watching with deep hearts," National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun said after the vote. "And hoping this doesn't repeat itself in the future."

President Park is temporarily stripped of her powers and the prime minister will take over until the constitutional court decides whether to uphold the legislature's decision and formally remove her. As long as she is president, even if her powers are suspended, Park is immune from prosecution.

Park was impeached by the National Assembly for a slew of reasons, all tied to the scandal that has paralyzed Park and Korean politics.

She has acknowledged that she allowed her close friend and spiritual advisor, Choi Soon-sil, to interfere in government affairs by seeing confidential documents and reviewing speeches in advance. That could be considered a constitutional violation, according to analysts.

She's also under a cloud for allegedly colluding with her friend to force major South Korean companies like Hyundai and Samsung to pony up millions to personally enrich the friend. The allegations have enraged the public despite three separate apologies by the president.

While lawmakers have voted to impeach a president before, the measure was thrown out by a court. No South Korean president has failed to serve out his or her full term. Park, 64, came to power in 2013 and her term isn't set to end until February 2018.

Park, the daughter of a former military dictator, Park Chung-hee, has become the least popular president since the country moved toward democracy in the 1980s. Her approval rating has fallen into the single digits and the country has been rocked by massive protests.

"The people are happy with the decision, now the next phase has to kick in," says James Kim, of Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute. "There are nine justices and the constitution requires six or more have to be vote for the impeachment vote to stand."

The court could dismiss the impeachment move. The justices have up to 180 days to decide on whether to formally remove the president. But given the constant rallies in the street and a leadership vacuum in the meantime, most observers do not expect the court to take that long to reach a decision.

If the court removes her, then an early presidential election will take place within 60 days after she is forced from office.

Violet Kim contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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