March 10, 2017 / 5:13 AM / 5 months ago

Impeached South Korean president awaits possible charges as she moves back home

Impeached President Park Geun-hye's house is seen in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2017.Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - When impeached president Park Geun-hye leaves South Korea's presidential palace she will go back to her house in Seoul's luxury Gangnam district surrounded by a high wall and bamboo. She may have to move again, next time to a cramped jail cell.

South Korea's Constitutional Court on Friday upheld a parliamentary decision to impeach Park, 65, over a corruption scandal, ousting her from office and capping months of political uncertainty and protests in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Shielded from prosecution while in office, Park could face criminal charges, the possibility of detention pending trial, and finally a jail sentence.

One former president spent almost two years in detention in the 1990s awaiting his trial.

It is not the first time Park has had to leave the Blue House, a presidential palace compound of traditional-style buildings at the foot of a rocky hill in central Seoul.

In 1979, after a nine-day funeral following the assassination of her father, President Park Chung Hee, the young Park left the Blue House with her siblings for a family home. She had been the de facto first lady after her mother was shot and killed in an earlier failed assassination attempt on her father.

Park's private home is a detached, two-storey house on a quiet back street in Seoul's affluent Gangnam district, where shops and apartment buildings have French names, and luxury car showrooms line avenues.

The house is surrounded by a high red-brick wall topped with barbed wire and CCTV cameras. A row of trees obscures most of it from the road. A small police booth guards the main entrance, besides which is an empty bracket for a flagpole.

Park bought the house in 1990 and it was her official address until 1998, when her focus became the city of Daegu, her father's political base, as she pursued a career in politics.

Four years later, she moved back to the house. Residents said they saw her occasionally in the leafy neighbourhood until 2012, when she won a closely fought election to become president.

"She kept her life very quiet. She would take a private car to commute," said resident Lee Bum-yong, stepping out of a neighbourhood convenience store, who said he had seen Park several times before she became president.

Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Dec. 9 to impeach Park over an influence-peddling scandal. She is accused of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, and a former presidential aide, both of whom have been indicted by prosecutors, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back her policy initiatives. Park and Choi deny any wrongdoing.

If Park now faces investigation and trial she will likely have to go to the Seoul Detention Centre, a facility on the outskirts of the city where arrested politicians and corporate chiefs are usually held, along with other detainees.

Jay Y. Lee, the third-generation leader of the Samsung conglomerate, has been there since Feb. 17, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Guests can visit for up to 30 minutes at a time, but conversations are through a glass partition.

Inmates are allowed unlimited time to meet lawyers.

Former president Chun Do-hwan, who in 1995 was found guilty of mutiny, treason and corruption, spent almost two years at the Anyang Correctional Institution, south of Seoul, as he awaited trial. He was sentenced to death, but later pardoned.

Like Samsung's Lee and Choi, Park's friend at the centre of the scandal, the outgoing president will probably be held in solitary confinement.

That is not for punishment, correction officials say, but to protect the high-profile inmates as a bitter and divisive scandal that has rocked the country plays out.

Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant

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