SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Sensing history, hundreds of people gathered Friday ahead of a court ruling on whether impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be removed from office over a corruption scandal or allowed to complete her term.
If Park is removed, it would mark the first time a South Korean president has been driven from office before the end of their term since democracy replaced dictatorship in the late 1980s.
In anticipation of the ruling, pro-Park supporters, many of them dressed in army-style fatigues and wearing red berets, and those who want Park gone began showing up around the Constitutional Court building in downtown Seoul.
A big television screen was set up near the court so that people could watch the verdict live. Hundreds of police also began preparing for the protests, putting on helmets with visors and black, hard-plastic breastplates and shin guards.
South Korea's opposition-controlled parliament voted to impeach Park in December amid suspicions that she colluded with a confidante to filch from companies and allowed the friend to secretly manipulate state affairs.
For Park to be formally removed, at least six of the court's eight justices will have to support the impeachment motion filed by lawmakers, which accuses the president of extortion, bribery, abuse of power and leaking government secrets. Park has apologized for putting trust in her friend, Choi (pronounced CHWEY) Soon-sil, but denies any legal wrongdoing.
If the court unseats Park, the country's election law requires a presidential vote within 60 days, which likely means May 9.
The ruling would instantly strip Park of her powers and also her immunity against prosecution. She could be interrogated by prosecutors seeking to indict her on criminal charges. Park has repeatedly refused to be interviewed by prosecutors over the scandal in recent months, but that will be harder to do if prosecutors have an arrest warrant.
If a presidential election is triggered, opinion polls favor liberal opposition politician Moon Jae-in, who lost the 2012 race to Park.
Some experts worry that Park's reinstatement could trigger a violent reaction from the millions of protesters who have demonstrated in major cities nationwide over the past several months.
If Park returns to office, the country's next presidential election will be held on Dec. 20 as originally scheduled.