March 9 (UPI) -- A South Korean court took the unprecedented step of removing its country's president from office after months of turmoil over Park Geun-hye's impeachment scandal.
The development follows mass protests against Park's presidency and the sprawling scandal that enveloped it after it was revealed she allowed a personal friend access to levers of government and the friend used it to solicit bribes enriching herself, the president and their associates.
Since October, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans flooded streets every week in the capital Seoul and across the country to demand Park's resignation. Despite that, the nation's first female president and an icon of its conservative political establishment, refused to leave -- even after her impeachment by the nation's Parliament, which left her powerless in all but title.
A court upheld her impeachment on Thursday, effectively ending the power struggle by removing her from office.
A presidential election to replace her will be held within the next 60 days, though no date has been set. Until then, the acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn will continue in office.
Under South Korean law, Park, 62, was immune from criminal prosecution as president. Now stripped of that immunity she likely faces criminal charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power. Prosecutors have unearthed evidence Park and her childhood friend, Choi Sun-sil, conspired to force major businesses including Samsung to pay tens of millions in bribes in exchange for government favors.
While the decision by South Korea's Constitutional Court spells the dramatic end to Park's political career, observers also lauded the resiliency of the nation's democratic institutions, which were able facilitate the president's peaceful removal from power.
While mass protests became the norm over the last three months, none turned violent. The nation's constitutional system of checks and balances worked without threat of political violence. The conduct of the legislative and judicial branches made it impossible for Park to avoid being removed despite the fact that historically, most of the political power has rested with the president.
"The negative effects of the president's actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the Constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large," Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said in the court's unanimous decision, the announcement of which was carried on live television across the country.
The court acknowledged Park's illegal actions in allowing Choi to handle state affairs, but denied allegations she abused power by appointing friends to government office. It also dismissed allegations Park showed dereliction of duty in 2014 when a ferry sunk off the nation's coast, killing 304 passengers and crew.
Park's removal could fundamentally alter politics in the region. A hard-line conservative, Park was eager to work with the United States to press North Korea on its nuclear provocations.
If the liberal opposition assumes power in the coming election, leaders have advocated a more diplomatic approach to the North, and have signaled they would heed warnings by the Chinese that the U.S. military influence in the region is growing too strong.
In a sign of the likely shift in power, the Trump administration is rushing to implement a missile defense system negotiated by former President Barack Obama before the election to select Park's successor. The move drew a rebuke from the Chinese.
Thursday's decision also brings an end to the Park family's political dynasty, which has been marked by bloodshed, controversy and strongman tactics. Park is the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961-79. The elder Park and his second wife, Park's mother were both assassinated in separate incidents. (Park's mother was killed by a North Korean sympathizer in 1974.)
The younger Park, who only had a year left in her term, was elected in 2012, mainly with the support of older conservative South Koreans who revered her father for the massive economic growth seen during his 18 years in power. The elder Park institutionalized the nation's history of close ties between government and family-run conglomerates with a series of tax breaks and anti-labor policies that enabled South Korea to become a powerhouse exporter of electronics and other consumer goods -- thanks in large part to the favors bestowed on the nation's business elite.
That growth came at a cost.
A former general, the elder Park rose to power after a military coup in 1961 and was popularly elected in 1963 as president. In 1977, he suspended the nation's constitution and declared martial law. He continued his authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by his security chief two years later.
The system the elder Park left behind ultimately led to the younger Park's downfall. Along with her childhood friend Choi, also indicted in the bribery scandal was the de facto leader of the Samsung family's massive business empire, Lee Jae-yong, who is accused of conspiring with the administration and paying off officials to benefit a business empire that rose to prominence under the elder Park's economic policies a generation ago.
Lee appeared in court earlier Thursday and formally denied any wrongdoing