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Two die in protests after South Korean president removed from office

Posted at 2:56 AM, Mar 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-10 06:15:48-05

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea has been plunged into a period of political uncertainty after the President, Park Geun-hye, was forced out of office by a corruption scandal.

The country's Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach Park over allegations of corruption and cronyism. She becomes the country's first democratically elected to be forcibly removed.

Two protesters died during demonstrations that broke out in the capital, Seoul, after the unanimous judgment was handed down in a live broadcast that gripped the nation.

The decision brings the career of Park, South Korea's first female leader, to an inglorious end. It also comes at a pivotal moment for the region, as North Korea ramps up its nuclear weapons testing program.

Here are the main developments from the day:

South Korea's first female president became the country's first democratically elected leader to be forced from office. At least two people died as pro- and anti-Park protests filled the streets of the capital. Now stripped of her immunity, Park is liable to prosecution. North Korea said Park will be investigated "as a common criminal."

A statement from acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn called for unity. "We all need to respect the decision of the constitutional court. There will be people who cannot accept this and find it hard to submit to this, but now is the time to accept and end the conflict and opposition."

An election for Park's replacement must be held within 60 days. An adhoc cabinet meeting will be held soon, a government official told CNN.

With Park's ruling conservatives looking out of favor, it seems likely the country will turn to the left-wing opposition, which has signaled it would be likely to pursue a policy of engagement with the North. A left-wing government would also place into question the continued deployment in South Korea of a US missile defense system, which is bitterly opposed by China.

Protests

As the announcement was made, anti-Park demonstrators on the streets of Seoul cried tears of joy and pumped fists in celebration, as applause rang out from the crowd.

Thousands of Park's supporters waved South Korean flags as they stood on main thoroughfares near the Constitutional Court. They were hemmed in by a ring of police officers, many wearing protective armor, and police vehicles.

A group of around 100 Park supporters tried to break through police lines near the court, and a number of people fell and were injured. "We lost our liberty. We lost our Korea," one protestor told CNN's Paula Hancocks live on air.

"We cannot understand impeachment for our president," another said. "She is still our president, tomorrow she will be our president."

Critics of Park celebrated wildly. Many had camped out in the streets during long winter nights, protesting her tenure as leader by holding candlelit vigils.

Fall from grace

Park was brought down by a corruption scandal that has dominated South Korean politics for months, and has entangled the acting head of Samsung.

The president was accused of being unduly influenced by her longtime friend and adviser, Choi Soon-sil, who is on trial for abuse of power and fraud. Local media and opposition parties accused Choi of abusing her relationship with the president to force companies to donate millions of dollars to foundations she set up. She denies all charges against her.

Lee Jae-yong, acting head of Samsung, is on trial for charges of bribery and corruption, which he also denies. Prosecutors allege that Lee, 48, pledged tens of millions of dollars to win favor with Park and secure government support for a merger that helped tighten his grip on on the company.

In December, lawmakers voted to impeach Park by a vote of 234 to 56, stripping away her executive powers. Since then she has remained in the presidential Blue House, but has remained largely out of public view.

On Friday, the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment, ruling that Park abused her authority in helping Choi raise donations from companies. "We announce the decision as the unanimous opinion of all judges. We dismiss the defendant President Park," said Justice Lee Jung-mi.

The ruling means Park loses the protection from prosecution she enjoyed as president. She could now face a formal investigation.

Park will not leave the Blue House immediately, a spokesman told CNN.

Reaction

South Korea's political stability is crucial to the security of the region -- it is a key buttress against North Korea, its provocative neighbor, and a major trading partner with the US and its Asian neighbors.

The US moved quickly to issue a reassuring statement, saying the two countries' relationship would be unaffected.

"We will continue to work with Prime Minister Hwang for the remainder of his tenure as acting President, and we look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

"The US-ROK alliance will continue to be a linchpin of regional stability and security, and we will continue to meet all our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea," the statement said, using an acronym for South Korea.

North Korea's official news agency noted that Park's immunity had been stripped, reporting that she would be investigated as a "common criminal."

Hwang, who will remain in power until the election, has instructed all military personnel to be on alert and to increase security,.

Police had issued the highest level of emergency order possible in Seoul ahead of the announcement. About 21,000 officers are on standby for expected protests, with 270 units being mobilized.