South Korea Impeachment of President Park Is Latest Hit to Global Political Order

The impeachment of South Korea’s president heralds the prospect of a new government for one of the U.S.’s closest allies with a more skeptical stance toward Washington, free trade and big business.

A resounding decision by South Korea’s National Assembly to impeach President Park Geun-hye, by a 234-56 vote, is a fresh earthquake to hit the global political order following populist referendum victories in the U.K. and Italy, and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

Her removal from power on Friday marks a turning point after South Korea’s biggest political crisis in years brought millions of demonstrators onto the streets in protest against her. Demonstrators massed outside the National Assembly building as the vote took place on Friday and celebrated its passage.

Park has been accused by prosecutors of leaking confidential presidential documents and helping a close friend shake down corporations for money. She has denied wrongdoing in three televised statements.

In a meeting with cabinet officials following the vote, Ms. Park said, “I am truly sorry to my fellow Koreans that my carelessness and shortcomings have led to such grave national turmoil.”

The Constitutional Court will rule on the validity of the impeachment motion in as soon as a few weeks. If it upholds the vote, as many analysts expect, a presidential election would take place two months later. Ms. Park would be barred from running and would also lose her immunity from criminal prosecution.

If her impeachment is overturned, Ms. Park would be reinstated and could serve out the remainder of her term through February 2018. Ms. Park said she would await the court’s ruling with a “calm attitude.”

As the court deliberates, South Korea’s acting head of state will be Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, a low-profile career bureaucrat who is unlikely to make any significant policy changes.

The U.S. moved quickly Friday to say it would work with Mr. Hwang. “We expect policy consistency and continuity across a range of fronts, including DPRK, other regional issues, and international economics and trade,” said State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen, using an acronym for North Korea.

The U.S.’s alliance with South Korea “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,” she added.

The vote has opened a new period of uncertainty for Asia’s fourth largest economy and complicates diplomacy in a volatile region for President-elect Trump, who has questioned Washington’s defense alliance with South Korea during his campaign.

U.S. and South Korean diplomats say ties between the two nations under the conservative administrations of Ms. Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, have been as close as at any point since American forces fought to protect the democratic South from the communist North in the Korean War of the 1950s.

Washington and Seoul enacted a bilateral free-trade agreement in 2012, a year before Ms. Park became president. Under a defense treaty, the U.S. bases around 28,500 troops in South Korea to ward off North Korean attack and holds major military drills with South Korea twice a year, as well as providing the threat of use of American nuclear weapons. South Korea has also grown closer to U.S. ally Japan, resolving some long-festering diplomatic tensions and recently signing an agreement to share military intelligence.

However, those trade, diplomatic and defense ties, including a plan to base an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea next year to protect against any North Korean attack, regularly face criticism from South Korea’s left-of-center opposition parties, which lean more toward trying to improve ties with Pyongyang and Beijing.

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