Asia

S. Korea's interim leader was Park defender; powers unclear

FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, file photo, South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn makes an official visit to Paris, France. Taking over as government caretaker in the wake of Friday's vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, Hwang is seen as a stiff and uncompromising defender of the fallen leader. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, file photo, South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn makes an official visit to Paris, France. Taking over as government caretaker in the wake of Friday's vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, Hwang is seen as a stiff and uncompromising defender of the fallen leader. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)  (The Associated Press)

The man who takes over as government caretaker in the wake of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment is seen by critics as a stiff and uncompromising defender of the fallen leader.

How loyal is Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn? As the corruption scandal that would bring Park down raged last month, popularly called "Choi Soon-sil Gate" after the confidante Park was alleged to have ceded government power to, Hwang suggested that it was really all his fault, not Park's, because he had failed to support her properly.

"Amazing," opposition lawmaker Roh Hoechan sarcastically replied. "So this was 'Hwang Kyo-ahn Gate' all along?"

Hwang, 59, was a state prosecutor for nearly 30 years before starting a career in politics and policymaking. He was regarded as the staunchest loyalist in Park's cabinet. The prime minister is the country's No. 2 position but ordinarily lacks major power.

Now Hwang assumes presidential duties, including serving as commander-in-chief of South Korea's 630,000-member military, while the country's Constitutional Court decides whether to approve or reject Park's impeachment. The court has half a year to decide, and if it removes Park, a presidential election would be held within 60 days.

The prime minister's powers in such situations, however, are not spelled out clearly in the law, leaving the question of what comes next open to interpretation.

Some legal experts say Hwang's authority should be constrained because he is merely keeping the seat warm for either a reinstated Park or a new president. Though filling in as president, his title remains prime minister.

But while opposition lawmakers don't particularly care for Hwang, some claim that he should at least have the authority to appoint senior officials.

The terms of two of the Constitutional Court's nine justices end early next year. Lawmakers worry this could cause problems if the court's review of Park's impeachment drags on. Removing Park from office would require the support of at least six justices.

Opposition lawmakers say they plan to propose a law to make it more clear what Hwang can and cannot do as interim leader.

The last time South Korean lawmakers voted to impeach a president, Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, Prime Minister Goh Kun quietly served handled presidential duties and refrained from exercising presidential powers on personnel appointments and diplomacy until the court reinstated Roh two months later.

Some experts believe the court will need more time to decide Park's case than Roh's. While Roh was accused of minor election law violations and incompetence, Park is facing spiraling allegations that she helped Choi extort money and favors from large companies and manipulate state affairs from the shadows. Park apologized over the public anger caused by the scandal and for putting trust in Choi, but has denied any legal wrongdoing.

Her lawyers are likely to press the court not to uphold impeachment unless suspicions leveled against the president are proven, experts say.

Hwang became Justice Minister in 2013 and successfully drove a government attempt to eliminate a leftist political party accused of pro-North Korea views. The party was dissolved following a Constitutional Court ruling in December 2014, a move some saw as a setback for freedom of speech.

Hwang became prime minister in June of last year, succeeding Lee Wan Koo, who resigned amid allegations that he was among several members of Park's administration who received bribes.

In July this year, Hwang was pelted with eggs and water bottles during a visit to a rural town over a decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the area to better cope with North Korean threats. The plan angered locals who feared possible health hazards from the system's powerful radar.

Hwang seemed on his way out when Park early last month nominated Kim Byong-joon, a former policy adviser for late President Roh, as her new prime minister in an effort to reach out to liberals for bipartisan support amid the scandal. However, Hwang kept the job after the opposition-controlled parliament refused to approve Kim as prime minister and went on to push for Park's impeachment.

South Korean law requires the Constitutional Court to apply the standards of criminal litigation when proceeding with impeachment trials. The chairman of the National Assembly's Legislation and Judiciary Committee serves as the chief prosecutor, which means a lawmaker from Park's own party, Kweon Seong Dong, will lead arguments in court to impeach her.

Kweon will work closely with opposition lawmakers who authored the impeachment motion and likely be backed by a large team of legal experts. There is speculation that Park might struggle finding lawyers to defend her because of public anger.

It's not yet clear if Park will appear in court to testify. In 2004, conservative lawmaker Kim Ki-choon, who acted as the chief prosecutor, demanded that Roh testify in court, but the justices concluded that his appearance wasn't necessary.