SEOUL, South Korea—The previous time South Korea’s parliament voted to impeach a president, ruling party lawmakers bawled and hurled ballot boxes, a man set himself on fire in front of the National Assembly, and thousands glumly held candlelight vigils night after night to save late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
Twelve years later, the mood couldn’t have been more different, with massive crowds returning to Seoul’s streets on Saturday, a day after lawmakers voted in favor of removing disgraced President Park Geun-hye. The vote for impeachment left protesters basking in pride, believing that they had repaired a damaged democracy with their weekly demonstrations.
Thousands of people marched near streets close to the presidential palace where the notoriously aloof Park will remain mostly alone for up to six months until the Constitutional Court rules whether she must step down permanently.
Carrying signs, flags and yellow balloons, they gleefully shouted for her to quit immediately rather than weather the court process.
The demonstrators waved their arms to the beat of gongs and drums and followed an effigy of Park dressed in prison clothes and tied with rope into a narrow alley near the presidential offices and residence, known as the Blue House.
“Park Geun-hye, get out of the house! Get out of the house now!” the marchers chanted.
“Come down and go to jail!”
Seemingly, tens of thousands of demonstrators packed a large nearby boulevard, which was the center of massive protests in recent weeks.
“We got off to a good first step (on Friday). It was a day when we all realized how strong we can collectively be,” said Kim Hye-in, 51, an out-of-towner who spent her sixth consecutive Saturday in Seoul protesting against Park. “But we aren’t there just yet. We need to keep gathering strength and protest until the court officially removes her from office.”
Protest organizers said about 600,000 people turned out on Saturday. On Friday, the opposition-controlled parliament passed an impeachment motion against Park, which stripped her of her presidential duties and pushed Prime Minster Hwang Kyo-ahn into the role as government caretaker until the court rules on Park’s fate.
The impeachment came after millions of people demonstrated for weeks demanding the removal of Park, who state prosecutors accuse of colluding with a longtime friend to extort money and favors from South Korea’s biggest companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions. Park has apologized for putting trust into her friend, Choi Soon-sil, but has denied any legal wrongdoing.
In 2004, the Constitutional Court reinstated Roh after two months, saying that minor election law violations and accusations of incompetence weren’t enough to justify his unseating as president. The chances of the court restoring Park’s powers are considered low because her charges are much graver, although some believe the court will need more than a couple of months to decide because her case is more complicated than Roh’s.
Park will be formally removed from office if at least six of the court’s nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days.
While the historically large protests that helped push lawmakers to vote to impeach Park have been peaceful, the festive atmosphere kicked up a notch on Saturday as demonstrators let out relief that the president they so desperately want removed was finally halfway out the door.
“We accomplished a peaceful revolution,” said Park Seong-su, a frequent anti-Park protester who faces a court trial for throwing what he said was dog feces at a Seoul prosecution office on Oct. 31 as Choi, Park’s now arrested longtime friend, arrived for questioning.
“For long, people were told by politicians what to do, but on Friday, it was the will of people that forced politicians what to do.”
Others weren’t as comfortable, saying that protesters should continue to rally every weekend to apply pressure on the court until it decides to formally remove the president.
Kim Hyeong-seok, another protester, said that the weekly rallies may turn violent if the court decides to reinstate Park.
“Then the candles will turn into torches,” he said.
There was tension Saturday hours before the large demonstration when thousands of Park supporters, most of them in their 60s or older, rallied in nearby streets, waving the country’s flags and shouting for Park’s “demagoguery impeachment” to be nullified.
Some of them exchanged bitter diatribes with anti-Park protesters.
Similar scenes played out on Friday when scuffles broke out between angry anti-Park farmers, some of whom had driven tractors to the National Assembly, and police. When impeachment happened, many of those gathered—some 10,000, according to organizers—raised their hands in the air and leapt about, cheering and laughing.
On Saturday, Hwang, as the acting president, held a meeting with Cabinet ministers at a government building near the presidential Blue House to discuss issues related to national security, foreign relations and financial markets.
The handover of power prompted the prime minister on Friday to order South Korea’s defense minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea. No suspicious movements by the North were reported.
The impeachment is a remarkable fall for Park, who convincingly beat her liberal opponent in 2012. Park’s single, five-year term was originally set to end Feb. 24, 2018.
The political turmoil around Park comes after years of frustration over a leadership style that inspired comparisons to her father, slain military dictator Park Chung-hee.
Critics saw in Park an unwillingness to tolerate dissent as her government cracked down on press freedom, pushed to dissolve a leftist party and allowed aggressive police suppression of anti-government protests, which saw the death of an activist in September.
She also was heavily criticized over her government’s handling of a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people, mostly school students, and was partially blamed on official incompetence and corruption.