The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye Friday, removing her from office after a 92-day leadership crisis and triggering a presidential election in the weeks to come.
The ruling, which was announced by the court's acting chief and televised live, made Park the nation's first democratically elected leader to be ousted. The court's eight justices voted unanimously for the impeachment.
She was impeached by parliament on Dec. 9 on charges of letting a close friend meddle in state affairs, colluding with her to extort money from conglomerates, and neglecting her duties during a 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300.
An election to pick her successor must be held within 60 days and many expect it to fall on May 9.
"The negative effects of the president's actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the Constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large," acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said.
Of the charges brought against the former president, the court acknowledged the illegality of Park's actions in letting Choi handle state affairs. It dismissed the others, such as her abuse of power to appoint government officials, citing a lack of evidence. On Park's alleged neglect of duty during the ferry sinking, Lee said the charge did not warrant deliberation by the court.
"The Constitutional Court's decision is equivalent to demanding legal accountability for President Park's failure to properly run state affairs," said Yang Seung-ham, honorary professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Now the public should accept the ruling."
The nation has been sharply divided along ideological and generational lines since the scandal broke in October, pushing millions of people into the streets to rally for or against the impeachment.
Liberal politicians have tapped into voter disappointment with calls for a change of administration after nearly 10 years of conservative rule. Former opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in the 2012 election, has been leading presidential opinion polls with approval ratings of over 30 percent.
The conservative bloc, meanwhile, has so far failed to field a candidate with a double digit approval rating, with the exception of Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has yet to formally join the race.
Local pundits said the court's decision demonstrated that South Korea's democratic system is firmly in place.
"We have undergone a process of resolving considerable conflict and differences in a predictable manner through legal procedures stipulated in the Constitution," said Park Myoung-kyu, a sociology professor at Seoul National University. "Now is the time to calm down and turn (the conflict) into policy debates and arguments."
The president's supporters and detractors rallied outside the court as police officers and police buses were deployed to prevent a possible clash.
The court's decision strips Park of her immunity from criminal prosecution, which will force her to undergo interrogation by prosecutors over her alleged crimes.