On March 10, South Korea’s Constitutional Court rendered its most important decision since its founding in 1988. The court’s eight judges unanimously voted to remove President Park Geun-hye from office, citing abuse of power and permitting a private citizen, her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, to meddle in state affairs. The former president was impeached by the legislature on Dec. 9, following revelations that Park had consulted Choi on state matters and used her presidential influence to secure millions of dollars in donations from the country’s largest conglomerates, including Samsung, for two nonprofit organizations run by Choi. Following the court’s decision, the acting president and Park-appointed prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, said in a public broadcast: “It’s time to end conflict and confrontation.” But that will be far easier said than done. Park’s scandal did much more than end her career. It has ruptured some of the most powerful institutions in Korean society and put the country in an unprecedented constitutional, social, and political crisis.
A snap election must take place within 60 days, likely on May 9, to replace Park. Until then, Hwang, who has been the unelected head of state since Park’s impeachment, will keep the position. Legally, the extent of Hwang’s authority is clear: He can exercise all the powers reserved for the president. In practice, however, Hwang is expected to do nothing more than act as a caretaker. Aside from a few minor appointments, Hwang has embraced his limited role, even deciding to leave a vacancy on the Constitutional Court (which usually has nine judges) rather than name a replacement.
In the event of a major crisis, such as a military confrontation, Hwang would be expected to serve in the same commander-in-chief role as an elected president — at least in theory. In practice, his authority to preside over the military chain of command is questionable. That could prove tempting for a hostile North Korean neighbor always willing to push Seoul’s buttons.
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