] South Korea’s Constitutional Court held the first hearing Tuesday to review the legitimacy of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment over a corruption scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil. But with Park’s absence, the session lasted just nine minutes.
The court’s nine justices, headed by chief Park Han-chul, scheduled the next hearing for Jan. 5. The court is allowed to proceed despite her absence, according to the Constitutional Court Act, with Park represented by her lawyers at the upcoming sessions.
The court chief Park asked for the cooperation of both the parliament and the president to verify facts during the forthcoming proceedings.
“Given the gravity of the case, the court will do its best to hear the impeachment case as sternly and fairly as possible,” he said during the hearing that began at 2 p.m.
The top court has until early June to decide whether to uphold or overturn Park’s impeachment.
The National Assembly voted to oust Park on Dec. 9, stripping her of substantial executive powers, over suspicions that she allowed Choi to meddle in state affairs and colluded with her to extort money from local conglomerates. She is also accused of failing to perform her duty to protect the lives of citizens during the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.
Outside the courtroom, members of the parliamentary impeachment committee criticized the president for holding a press meeting on Jan 1, calling her self-defensive actions outside the courtroom “improper” and “impolite.”
“It is basic courtesy to reveal all the facts inside the courtroom (to justices) rather than outside the courtroom to reporters,” Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, chairman of the judiciary committee at the National Assembly, said in a press briefing. “We will do our best to bring about a rapid and accurate ruling by verifying evidence and interrogating witnesses at the court.”
Park held a press meeting on Jan. 1, appearing for the first time in public since her impeachment by the parliament. She denied all the allegations against her, describing them as “fabrication and falsehood” and saying she was totally “framed.”
The listed charges in the impeachment motion include Park’s violation of the people’s sovereignty and the rule of law, abuse of her power, bribery, infringement of press freedom and negligence of her duty to protect people’s lives.
Park’s lawyer Lee Joong-hwan said her lawyers were not informed in advance of the president’s meeting with reporters. They also said that Park would not likely appear for the upcoming hearings.
The impeachment trial is likely to gain momentum on Jan.5, with key figures tied to the scandal expected to appear to testify.
In the hearing scheduled for Jan. 5, the court is set to bring in two of Park’s closest secretaries, Lee Jae-man and Ahn Bong-geun, and two administrative staff, Lee Young-sun and Yoon Jeon-choo, as witnesses to clarify suspicions of Park’s abuse of authority.
For the hearing Tuesday, other key suspects -- Choi, former presidential aides An Chong-bum and Jeong Ho-seong -- are expected to testify before the justices. Among other charges, Choi is suspected of conspiring with Park and An to coerce donations from local conglomerates for foundations she controlled. Jeong is suspected of leaking government secrets to Choi.
When witnesses fail to attend the hearings without justifiable reasons, they could face a jail term of up to one year and penalty of up to 1 million won ($829).
The Constitutional Court has signaled that it will accelerate the court proceedings as it is mindful of the gravity of the situation. It will hold hearings at least twice a week. The nine-judge court is under growing pressure to make a decision swiftly, as the terms for the chief justice as well as Judge Lee Jung-mi are slated to end on Jan. 31 and March 31, respectively.
The previous impeachment trial of former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 -- which ended with him being reinstated -- was concluded 63 days after the parliamentary motion was passed, two weeks after the final hearing.
By Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org