Asia-Pacific News

South Korean opposition wants to impeach acting president

South Koreans awoke to fresh political drama on Monday as public anger mounts against acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn.

The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Party, will seek to impeach Hwang in conjunction with other opposition entities, Yonhap News reported on Monday. This comes after Hwang announced earlier in the day that an official investigation into a corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye would end as scheduled on Feb. 28.

South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn with US Defense Secretary James Mattis in Seoul on February 2, 2017
Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

"Honestly, I didn't even know you could impeach an acting President/Prime Minister," said Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University. "This will only worsen the crisis...the scandal is far bigger than anyone thought and the probe should have been given the time it needs."

The probe, carried out by the special prosecutor's office, was launched last year after 65-year old Park, currently stripped of powers, was accused of colluding with a personal friend, Choi Soon-il, in securing donations from the nation's biggest enterprises for foundations that backed Park's policies.

The special prosecution team had requested to extend the investigation for 30 days but their demand was denied early on Monday, with Hwang's office saying the probe had progressed enough to achieve its purpose, Yonhap reported. The impact on potential early presidential elections was also a factor, but another inquiry could be launched in the future, Hwang's office added.

The special prosecutor's team called the decision "regrettable" while the Democratic Party called Hwang "Park's co-conspirator."

The investigation had implicated several chaebols, or family-run Korean conglomerates, and sparked hopes for government policies to curtail the crony capitalism many allege is rampant among the country's business elites. In November, the offices of Lotte and SK Group were raided, while Samsung Group chief Lee Jae-yong was arrested earlier this month for allegedly paying bribes worth $37 million to Choi.

South Korea's political scandal drags on

"Time will tell if the opposition are serious [about impeaching Hwang] or if this just is a token maneuver to show the public they are committed to fighting the administration tooth and nail," said Steven Ward, assistant professor at Gwangju-based Chosun University.

Park's final hearing

Separately, the Constitutional Court of Korea was due to hold its final hearing on Park's impeachment later on Monday.

The court held its first hearing on Dec. 22 after parliament voted to impeach Park earlier that month. At least six of the nine judges on the court, an independent body specializing in matters of the constitution, must approve or reject the impeachment motion by early June.

But a decision is now expected sooner rather than later.

The acting chief justice is due to step down on March 13, which should speed up the decision-making process, pointed out Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society.

The courts are currently short-handed and because they need to rule with a decent number of jurists, they won't be likely to make such a momentous ruling without the chief justice, he explained. "That's what's driving their timeline."

Park was not expected to attend that final hearing, which means she will not be offering any testimony. But that that may only worsen her public image, according to experts.

"It is a shame she choose not to testify, that displays the same aristocratic aloofness that her in so much trouble to begin with. She hasn't actually defended herself much, and this was a great chance to do so," said Kelly.

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