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Ousted South Korean leader leaves presidential residence

Park Geun-Hye was greeted <span id="U831886632769CJE" style=" letter-spacing: -5; ;">by supporters at her private</span> home in Seoul on Sunday.
Park Geun-Hye was greeted <span id="U831886632769CJE" style=" letter-spacing: -5; ;">by supporters at her private</span> home in Seoul on Sunday.AFP/Getty Images

SEOUL — For months, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have gathered almost weekly near the presidential Blue House in Seoul, calling for the departure of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s leader.

On Sunday, two days after the Constitutional Court removed her from office on charges of corruption and abuse of power, they got their wish, as Park left quietly in a motorcade that whisked her to her two-story red brick house in the southern part of the capital.

Park became the first South Korean leader to be forced out of office in response to popular pressure since the country’s founding president, Syngman Rhee, fled into exile in Hawaii in 1960 after protests against his corrupt, authoritarian rule.

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“I am sorry that I could not finish the presidential duty that was entrusted to me,” Park said in a statement read by one of her former aides to reporters outside her home. “I will bear with me all the consequences.”

Park, who has been pressured by the opposition to publicly accept the court’s ruling and whose own party said it “humbly respected” the decision, hinted that she disagreed with it. “It will take time,” she said, “but I am sure that the truth will be known.”

Park may face criminal charges of extortion and bribery in connection with the scandal. Prosecutors have said she conspired with a confidante to collect tens of millions of dollars from big businesses, and that some of the money represented bribes for political favors.

Several political parties, including conservatives scrambling to distance themselves from Park, say South Koreans should vote in a new constitution in addition to a new president in early May.

They say the downfall of Park shows that the constitution places too much power that is easily abused and often goes unchecked into the hands of the president.

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Their proposal for a new constitution is based on power-sharing, in which the president is limited to handling foreign affairs and national security and leaves domestic affairs to a prime minister picked by Parliament.

However, the party of liberal Moon Jae-in, who opinion polls show as the clear favorite to become South Korea’s next leader, opposes a quick constitutional revision and accuses rival parties of plotting a short-cut to power.

On Sunday, as the motorcade carrying Park arrived at the house where she lived from 1990 to 2013, it pulled past hundreds of supporters lining the alley and waving national flags.

Park, who has now lost the privilege of immunity that came with the presidency, stepped out of the car, smiled, and shook hands with former aides and party lawmakers who waited for her in front of her house.

Supporters said they could not accept the Constitutional Court ruling, and held up a variety of signs to express that sentiment: “You are our president forever!” “We love you,” and “Park Geun-hye, the president of the people, welcome back!”

After the ruling was announced on Friday, thousands of Park supporters, mostly older conservatives, tried to march on the courthouse and called for its destruction, with some clashing with police officers who blocked them with a barricade of buses.

Three men, in their 60s and 70s, died during the clashes.

On Saturday, Park supporters rallied in central Seoul, vowing to start a political party to fight “pro-North Korea” leftists who they said conspired to bring down Park and calling the Constitutional Court ruling “sedition.” No violence was reported.

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Moon, the opposition leader who leads the race to replace Park, criticized her on Sunday for failing to announce in public that she accepts the court ruling. Speaking at a news conference, he also said prosecutors should open their corruption investigation into Park immediately.