Emptying South Korea court offers president a lifeline
South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye is trying to run out the clock in her impeachment trial, analysts say, warning of public uproar if her lawyers’ delaying tactics succeed.
Park was impeached by parliament in December over a corruption scandal that tapped into mounting economic and social frustrations and brought millions of people onto the streets in weekly protests.
The Constitutional Court in Seoul is now deliberating whether to approve the impeachment, which would trigger new elections, or to allow her to see out her five-year term.
Critics say Park’s lawyers have been stalling the process, filibustering and calling up irrelevant witnesses. Last month her counsel threatened to resign en masse when the court allowed only 10 out of their requested 39 witnesses.
The delays could offer Park a political lifeline.
The court’s chief justice retired last week, leaving an empty red-backed chair at the end of the bench, and another judge will step down at the end of her term in little over a month.
By law six votes — a two-thirds majority of the full nine-member bench — are needed to uphold the impeachment, however many judges are sitting.
That effectively means that from March 14, Park will need the backing of only two justices to return to the presidential Blue House — and most have conservative political allegiances.
“For this reason, there are ample reasons for Park’s side to seek to delay the verdict as long as possible,” said Kim Jong-Cheol, a law professor at Yonsei University.
Park, the conservative daughter of a late army-backed dictator, is accused of colluding with a longtime friend, Choi Soon-Sil, to strong-arm donations worth tens of millions of dollars from top firms to dubious foundations controlled by Choi.
The scandal has laid bare cosy ties between business and politics in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, and embroiled many of its leading companies, including the world’s biggest smartphone maker Samsung.
It has catalysed intense frustrations in a competitive society, in areas ranging from education to jobs and incomes, and seen immense crowds throng central Seoul for candlelight protests demanding Park’s departure.
– Late-night hearings –
The constitutional court is holding as many as three hearings a week — an unprecedented pace — with sessions sometimes stretching late into the night. This week it agreed to hear from another eight defence witnesses, stretching the case out further.
Park’s chief lawyer Lee Joong-Hwan has told journalists that the allegations must be verified “as throughly as possible”. Two months was too short for an impeachment case, he added.
Another of Park’s lawyers indicated on his Facebook page that they believe time is on their side.
“As time passes by, the attackers’ supply lines will get outstretched and ultimately reach their limit,” wrote Son Beom-Kyu. “Then the defenders can turn the tables on them.”
The constitutional court has previously overturned a parliamentary impeachment, that of liberal president Roh Moo-Hyun in 2004.
– ‘Unimaginable consequences’ –
Park’s supporters were left bewildered when the crisis began but have begun rallying, holding protests near the court and scattering leaflets describing the impeachment as a conspiracy spawned by pro-North Korea leftists.
The outgoing judges cannot not be replaced until after the impeachment process is complete, and analysts said Park appears to be pinning her hopes on some members’ allegiances.
Five of the current eight judges — including the one who steps down next month — were recommended by either Park, her party, or a Supreme Court judge appointed by them. Two were recommended by opposition parties or their appointees, and one jointly.
“There are growing concerns that the court might fail to secure the required six judges to approve the impeachment because of the judges’ conservative political inclinations and another judge retiring,” said Park Kie-Duck, former head of the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank.
But a rejection would not serve the establishment’s interests, he warned.
“The consequences would be just unimaginable and I think the judges recognise it well,” he said.
“The country would experience near-anarchy, with millions of angry protestors pouring out to the street. The president, even if she returns to power, would remain politically incapacitated and morally bankrupt, with no authority to govern.”
Opinion polls suggest eight of 10 people are in favour of Park’s impeachment.
The constitutional court has tended to rule in line with dominant public opinion in major cases, said Kang Jung-In, professor of political science at Sogang University, such as Roh’s 2004 impeachment, which most people opposed.
Kim of Yonsei University added: “If this case is not up to the standard of an impeachment, I wonder what would be.”