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Impeached South Korean president Park 'deeply sorry' for 'turmoil'

South Korean politicians have impeached President Park Geun-hye, a stunning and swift fall for the country's first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets in united fury.

After the vote, parliamentary officials hand-delivered formal documents to the presidential Blue House that stripped Ms Park of her power and allowed her number two, prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, to assume leadership until the country's Constitutional Court rules on whether Ms Park must permanently step down.

The court has up to six months to decide.

"I'd like to say that I'm deeply sorry to the people because the nation has to experience this turmoil because of my negligence and lack of virtue at a time when our security and economy both face difficulties," Ms Park said at a cabinet meeting after the vote.

Once called the Queen of Elections for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Ms Park has been surrounded in the Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest.

They are furious over what prosecutors say was collusion by Ms Park with a longtime friend to extort money from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions.

Organisers said about 10,000 people gathered in front of the National Assembly to demand that politicians pass the impeachment motion.

Some had spent the night on the streets after travelling from other cities.

Scuffles broke out between angry anti-Park farmers, some of whom had driven tractors to the assembly from their farms, and police.

When impeachment happened, many of those gathered raised their hands in the air and leapt about, cheering and laughing.

"Can you hear the roar of the people in front of the National Assembly? We need to overcome the old establishment and create a new Republic of Korea by passing (the impeachment motion)," Kim Kwan-young, an opposition politician said ahead of the vote, referring to South Korea's formal name.

"Our great people have already opened the way. Let's make it so we can stand honourably in front of history and our descendants."

The handover of power prompted the prime minister to order South Korea's defence minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea.

No suspicious movements by the North were reported, however.

Ms Park will be formally removed from office if at least six of the Constitutional Court's nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days.

National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun said the Bill on Ms Park's impeachment was passed by a vote of 234 for and 56 opposed, with seven invalid votes and two abstentions.

That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds vote needed in the 300-seat assembly, with the opposition getting strong support from members of Ms Park's party.

Present for the vote were relatives of the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption; they cheered and clapped after the impeachment was announced.

Most politicians left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.

Politicians from both parties faced huge pressure to act against Ms Park, the daughter of a military dictator still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s and 1970s.

Her approval ratings had plunged to 4%, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her.

An opinion survey released on Thursday showed about 78% of respondents supported Ms Park's impeachment.

South Korean politicians last voted to impeach a president in 2004, when they accused late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun of minor election law violations and incompetence.

The Constitutional Court restored Mr Roh's powers about two months later, ruling that his wrongdoings were not serious enough to justify his unseating.

The chances of the court reinstating Ms Park are considered low because her charges are much graver.

Some legal experts say the court might need more than a couple of months to decide.

This is because Ms Park's case is much more complicated than Mr Roh's, and because her lawyers are likely to press the court not to uphold the impeachment unless the suspicions against her are proven.

Hundreds gathered on Friday night at a boulevard in front of an old palace gate in central Seoul, which has been the centre of demonstrations in recent weeks calling for Ms Park's removal.

Protesters planned to march close to the Blue House.

The impeachment is a remarkable fall for Ms Park, who convincingly beat her liberal opponent in 2012.

Ms Park's single, five-year term was originally set to end on February 24 2018.

The political turmoil around Ms Park comes after years of frustration over a leadership style that inspired comparisons to her father, Park Chung-hee.

Critics saw in Ms Park an unwillingness to tolerate dissent as her government cracked down on press freedom, pushed to dissolve a leftist party and allowed aggressive police suppression of anti-government protests, which saw the death of an activist in 2016.

She was also heavily criticised over her government's handling of the 2014 ferry sinking; most of those victims were school children.

Ms Park has repeatedly apologised over the public anger caused by the latest scandal, but has denied any legal wrongdoing.

She attempted to avoid impeachment last month by making a conditional offer to step down if parliament could come up with a stable power-transfer plan, but the overture was dismissed by opposition politicians as a stalling ploy.

Talking with leaders of her conservative ruling party on Tuesday, Ms Park said she would make "every available effort" to prepare for the court's impeachment review.

In indicting Ms Park's longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, and two former presidential aides last month, state prosecutors said they believed the president was "collusively involved" in criminal activities by the suspects.

Choi and the two former aides were accused of bullying large companies into providing tens of millions of dollars and favours to foundations and businesses Choi controlled, and enabling Choi to interfere with state affairs.

Ms Park's lawyer has called the accusations groundless.

Ms Park first met Choi in the 1970s, around the time Ms Park was acting as first lady after her mother was killed during a 1974 assassination attempt on her father.

Choi's father, a shadowy figure named Choi Tae-min who was a Buddhist monk, a religious cult leader and a Christian pastor at different times, emerged as Ms Park's mentor.

The Choi clan has long been suspected of building a fortune by using their connections with Ms Park to extort companies and government organisations.

Choi's ex-husband is also a former close aide of Ms Park's.

AP

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