SEOUL - The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye entered its final phase Monday as the Constitutional Court held its last hearing, and as Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn refused to extend the independent counsel probe in the corruption scandal.
In December the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to remove President Park from office for colluding with her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to extort Korean conglomerates to donate over $69 million to two dubious foundations in exchange for favorable treatment or under threat of tax audits.
There were also other charges related to Park’s allegedly negligent handing of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster that killed over 300 people, and to Choi purportedly using presidential connections to gain her daughter admission into a prestigious university.
President Park has been suspended from office during the Constitutional Court trial to review the legitimacy of the impeachment motion, a process that by law can take up to six months.
Park declined to attend the final hearing and has publicly maintained that she is not guilty of the charges, that she has never financially benefited from her office, and was unaware of any illicit activities that were allegedly conducted by friends and subordinates.
However critics say Park’s lawyers have employed a cynical defense strategy to fight the motion on technical legal grounds and to delay the proceedings until judicial term limits further change the dynamics of the Constitutional Court in their favor.
The South Korean constitution requires that at least six of the nine top court justices concur to reach a valid ruling. Currently there are eights judges left on the court as Chief Justice Chief Judge Park Han-chul stepped down when his term expired in January. Justice Lee Jung-mi’s term ends after March 13. No new justices can be appointed during the impeachment process.
The court has indicated it would strive to reach a verdict before Justice Lee steps down.
However, one of the president’s lawyers has claimed that a decision made by an eight member Constitutional Court could be subject to a retrial motion.
Park’s lawyers have also argued that because the 13 specific impeachment charges were bundled into one single motion, and not voted on separately, the entire process should be invalid.
Also on Monday South Korea's acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn refused to extend the current special prosecutor's investigation into the presidential influence peddling scandal.
"After much deliberation (the acting president) has decided that it would be best for the country's stability to not extend the special investigation and for the prosecutors to take over,” said Hong Kwon-Heui, the spokesperson for the prime minister.
The special prosecution team was appointed in December due to concerns that Justice Ministry prosecutors appointed by the Park administration could be perceived as having a conflict of interest in the investigation.
During its 90 day term, the special prosecution team indicted or arrested several members of the political and business elite linked to the corruption scandal, including Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee.
However President Park and her defense team have refused to cooperate with the investigation, and acting President Hwang had denied a request to search her offices in the Blue House on national security grounds.
The special prosecutor had requested an extension to continue its investigation and expressed disappointment with Hwang’s rejection.
“The special prosecutor thinks it is very regrettable that Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn did not accept request of extension of investigation period while the investigation of the subjects of special prosecutor's law is not completed,” said Lee Kyu-chul, spokesman for the special prosecution team.
Leaders of the Democratic Party, South Korea's main opposition party, said on Monday it would seek to impeach the prime minister for refusing to extend the independent counsel investigation.
Acting President Hwang was appointed prime minister in 2015 by President Park and is considered a possible conservative presidential candidate if the impeachment motion is upheld.
The presidential influence peddling scandal and impeachment trial has deeply divided the nation. This weekend tens of thousands of anti-Park protesters again staged a major rally in Seoul calling for the president to step down, as they have every week since the scandal broke.
A number of opposition leaders have already declared their intention to run for president in an election to be scheduled within 60 days of the impeachment ruling, if it is upheld. If the court rejects the impeachment, the presidential election will be held later this year as President Park’s single five-year term ends in early 2018.
In the last month, conservative supporters of Park have also held large-scale counter demonstrations. Many conservatives at these rallies carry American flags and denounce impeachment supporters as North Korean sympathizers.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was considered the conservative frontrunner to follow President Park, but he withdrew his name from consideration after facing media criticism and declining approval ratings.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.