Parallel rallies hit the streets, 2 protesters dieProtesters calling for an end to the Park Geun-hye presidency celebrated Friday afternoon. It was a long-awaited climax to a movement that has drawn crowds every Saturday evening to downtown Seoul, braving subzero temperatures and holding aloft candles deep into the winter nights.
The Constitutional Court gave them what they had demanded so steadfastly and peacefully: Park was out.
A crowd near exit No. 2 of Anguk Station, the nearest subway to the Constitutional Court, exploded with joy as Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi declared Park’s removal at 11:20 a.m. that day.
“We won!” some cheered. Others flung their arms into the still-crisp air, screaming “Manse! [Victory!]”
One teenage girl did an impromptu dance to a K-pop song. A teen boy took out a teepee-shaped party hat and blew a vuvuzela.
Lee Young-chan, 19, a college freshman, was all smiles.
“I participated in the Saturday rallies since October, from the very first one, even though I was a high school senior about to take the College Scholastic Ability Test. Everyone called me a lunatic. I’m just so happy about the result.”
Lee was one of nearly 5,000 people gathered near Anguk Station, according to figures provided by the organizing coalition. Together they marched towards the Blue House filled with triumph, fists pumping in solidarity.
Kim Hyun-soo, 30, a stock analyst in Yeouido, western Seoul, said he watched the Constitutional Court ruling with his colleagues at work and felt “overwhelmed” with the outcome.
“We tuned in live from our computers, our volumes up to their highest levels,” he said. “My heart sank every time the chief justice uttered the word ‘however,’ but in the end, I think it was victory for the nation’s constitutionalism.”
Kim Hyeon-jung, 29, an office worker in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, credited an independent counsel team for digging thoroughly into the extensive scandal that engulfed Park and her inner circle. Kim said the Constitutional Court “capped it off reasonably.”
But a separate set of protesters waving Korean national flags had the opposite reaction. They are Park supporters, who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to urge her restoration - partly in fear of chaos or North Korea taking advantage of the impeachment process and any election that would follow Park’s removal.
Many believe that Park was a “victim” in a scheme played out by her cronies.
Just 100 meters (328 feet) away from the anti-Park masses, the former president’s backers wiped away tears as they tried to march toward the Constitutional Court in a show of defiance.
Police officers formed layers of barricades to block the crowd from progressing. Hundreds of people staged a sit-in near the court, demanding the judges reverse their decision to remove the president.
At least two men participating in the pro-Park rallies in Seoul were confirmed dead by local authorities. One was transferred to a hospital after he was found lying unconscious in Anguk Station at 12:15 p.m., but died, said police. The cause of death is not known yet.
The other man, who was in his 70s, was marching from Anguk Station towards the Constitutional Court at 12:20 p.m. when a speaker that was installed atop a police bus fell on him. Apparently, a fellow protester had tried hijacking the bus, leading to the speaker falling. An ambulance took him to a nearby hospital, but he died at 1:50 p.m. due to the head injury.
Police said two other pro-Park protesters were critically injured and are now hospitalized. A police task force is looking into the causes.
The organizers of the pro-Park rallies said they would plan a series of protests defying the verdict.
At 7 p.m. the anti-Park protesters held a candlelight celebration in Gwanghwamun Square.
BY HAN YOUNG-IK, YUN JUNG-MIN, LEE HYUN AND YUN JAE-YEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]