South Koreans celebrate Park impeachment, but anxiety lingers

AFP , Saturday 10 Dec 2016

South Korea
An effigy of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is seen behind people marching towards the Presidential Blue House during a protest calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in central Seoul, South Korea, December 10, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Tens of thousands celebrated the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye at a rally in Seoul on Saturday, but amid the euphoria there was lingering anger, and anxiety at the prospect of an extended period of political uncertainty.

For the seventh straight week, protesters gathered en masse in the streets of the capital, but the mood was generally festive, after lawmakers on Friday voted overwhelmingly to impeach the deeply unpopular Park over a corruption scandal.

Although the move stripped Park of her substantial executive powers, activists said they intended to keep up the pressure, with the impeachment still requiring final approval from the Constitutional Court -- a process that could take months.

And many were adamant that the president should resign immediately and face criminal prosecution.

"We are still hungry" the crowd in Seoul's Gwanghwamun chanted, as they also sang along to the revised lyrics of a Christmas song that read: "Only after she is out, will it be a Merry Christmas."

Organisers put the turnout at around 200,000 -- smaller than previous weeks when the crowd's passed the million mark.

Until the court rules, Park's authority is only suspended and she retains the title of president and the immunity from prosecution that goes with it.

And she still has her supporters, many of them elderly voters who remain steadfast admirers of her father, the late military dictator Park Chung-Hee -- credited as the architect of the South's economic transformation but vilified as an authoritarian rights abuser.

A large portrait of a young Park with her father formed the centrepiece of a pro-Park rally in Seoul earlier on Saturday that drew around 15,000 people.

Waving national flags, they carried banners that read: "President Park, Don't Cry" and "Nullify impeachment".

Park was impeached on numerous counts of constitutional and criminal violations ranging from a failure to protect people's lives to bribery and abuse of power.

Most of the charges stemmed from an investigation into a scandal involving the president's long-time friend, Choi Soon-Sil, who is currently awaiting trial for fraud and embezzlement.

Prosecutors named Park a suspect in the case, saying she colluded in Choi's efforts to strong arm donations from large companies worth tens of millions of dollars.

The impeachment process was ignited and fuelled by public outrage at Park's behaviour, with the weekly mass demonstrations demanding that politicians take a pro-active role in removing her from the presidential Blue House.

The National Assembly has played its part, but the country now faces a lengthy period of uncertainty at a time of slowing economic growth and elevated military tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.

"We have only overcome one challenge. The challenges that follow will be bigger," said Kim Young-Ho who attended Saturday's rally with members of the Korean Farmers' League.

The man charged with steering the country through these dangerous waters is a former prosecutor who has never held elected office.

As Park's prime minister, Hwang Kyo-Ahn became the temporary guardian of her sweeping executive powers the moment after she was impeached.

A stern and not particularly popular figure, Hwang is especially disliked by liberal activists for his zealous pursuit of people deemed "North Korean sympathisers" under the South's draconian national security law.

Flung into a role he had never sought, Hwang sought to strike a reassuring tone during an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday.

"The government is carrying out all measures necessary to prevent any government vacuum and ease the people's anxiety," Hwang said, adding that he had instructed the military to be extra vigilant to any move by North Korea to exploit the current situation.

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests this year and multiple missile launches, prompting South Korea to agree to host a sophisticated US anti-missile system -- despite protests from China.

Contributing to the general anxiety is the presidential power transition in the United States, a key economic and military ally which has nearly 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea.

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