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South Korea Impeaches President, But Political Drama Isn’t Finished

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Photo by Getty Images

South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye attends an emergency Cabinet meeting on Friday in Seoul.

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Photo by Ed Jones AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators celebrate after the South Korean Parliament voted to impeach President Park Geun-Hye, as huge crowds gathered outside the National Assembly in Seoul on Friday.

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South Korean lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to impeach their president, Park Geun-hye, who is mired in a corruption scandal and facing a criminal investigation. But the celebration of the impeachment vote may be temporary, as a panel of justices will ultimately decide her fate.

"A lot of attention and focus of the national media and public will be on the constitutional court," says James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. That court has 180 days to decide whether to uphold or dismiss the impeachment motion.

Despite the uncertainty, there was mostly celebration on Friday. Outside the National Assembly, crowds sang the lines of the South Korean Constitution: "We are a democratic republic." Nearly 8 in 10 Koreans who were polled supported the impeachment.

Weeks of protests, with crowds numbering in the millions, added fuel to growing outrage over Park, who has served four years as president but is viewed as aloof and out of touch with the concerns of everyday Koreans.

"I am taking the voices of the National Assembly and the people seriously," Park told her Cabinet and prime minister after the vote, "and sincerely hope that the chaos right now will end well. I will face the verdict of the constitutional court and the investigation of the independent counsel with a calm and serene mind, according to the the process determined by the constitution and the law."

Opposition lawmakers were originally reluctant to bring up an impeachment measure, but after Park didn't step down on her own, her reluctance, coupled with swelling protests, spurred lawmakers to take action.

"The events recently have really activated a lot of people who previously wouldn't have shown up in the streets. This is one of the most historic events that we've had in the past 50, 60 years," says Michael Kim, a professor of Korean history at Seoul's Yonsei University. "There's almost overwhelming consensus that the impeachment was warranted."

Lawmakers voted 234 to 56 in favor of impeachment. The vote marks a dramatic moment in the political career of Park — the daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee — and for her country.

Aside from being the target of public fury, Park is under criminal investigation in the messy scandal that led to Friday's vote. Prosecutors accuse her of conspiring in a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme, led by her close friend and spiritual adviser, Choi Soon-sil.

Prosecutors say Choi enjoyed extraordinary power to make decisions in state affairs, despite holding no official position. Michael Kim, the professor, says Choi is symbolic of a political system that can easily be gamed.

"The system itself generates these kinds of issues," Kim says. "The very famous Choi Soon-sil, who is currently in jail, in some ways, she simply figured out a better way to work the system in a better way than anyone did previously."

While Choi, the president's friend, is behind bars, the president herself is immune from criminal charges while she still holds office. She has refused to take investigators' questions.

"I think people are very happy with the decision [to impeach], now the next phase has to kick in," Asan's James Kim said.

Part of that next phase is a transfer of power. The president's executive powers, which include serving as the commander in chief of the military, have been transferred temporarily to the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn. In a nationwide address following the vote, he said, "The world is watching South Korea right now. Please, let's come together to overcome this crisis."

Violet Kim contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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