Seoul (AFP) - South Korea's highest court was deciding Friday whether to uphold or overturn the impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye over wide-ranging corruption allegations, as months of political turmoil reached a climax.
Park, the daughter of a late army-backed dictator, became South Korea's first female president when she was elected in 2012, securing the highest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era.
But her aloof style and a series of controversies, coupled with mounting economic and social frustrations, saw her ratings plunge and millions take to the streets to demand her removal.
She was impeached by parliament in December on charges including bribery and abuse of power, and the Constitutional Court was to issue its decision on whether to confirm the move on Friday.
A heavy police presence was deployed in the streets around the building, where thousands of supporters and opponents gathered amid rising tensions.
Loudspeakers at an anti-impeachment demonstration blared out military songs and protestors chanted slogans, many waving South Korean and US flags.
"I am ready to shed my blood on the road to protect free democracy," said Bae Soo-Rok, 58, a retired soldier wearing a South Korean marine uniform. "President Park is being sacrificed at something like a kangaroo court."
Anti-Park demonstrators watching a giant screen set up on the street chanted, "Park Geun-Hye's impeachment will be a victory for all!"
Parties on both sides of the political spectrum vowed to respect the decision.
Chief justice Lee Jung-Mi started reading the verdict shortly after 11am (0200 GMT) and was expected to take around an hour.
Under South Korean law six votes, a two-thirds majority of the full bench, on any one of five issues are needed to uphold Park's removal, even though only eight justices were sitting.
"The dice of destiny have now been cast," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a presidential aide as saying earlier. "We will calmly wait and see what the result will be."
- 'Wise decision' -
The president has repeatedly apologised for the impact of the scandal, but rejected all allegations of wrongdoing when she submitted a written statement to the court's last hearing in February.
"I've never sought private gains or abused power as president... I plead with the court to make a wise decision," she said.
Parliamentary lawyer Kwon Sung-Dong urged the court to confirm her impeachment and protect South Korea from "enemies of democracy".
"We ask the court to declare victory for the people by firing the accused," he said at the same hearing.
Ahead of the decision, an overwhelming majority of South Koreans -- around 77 percent -- support Park's removal in opinion polls.
Parliamentary lawyer Park Bum-Gye told reporters Thursday the court was "apparently leaning towards verifying" the impeachment.
But presidential attorney Lee Chung-Hwan said the justices should overturn the impeachment for lack of evidence.
"The court must not approve the impeachment based on suspicions rather than proof," he said.
Park has been holed up in the Blue House with her power suspended since she was impeached, leaving the complex only once, to pay tribute at her parents' graves.
If her removal is approved, she would be forced out of the palace and deprived of her executive immunity, exposing her to potential criminal charges.
Her confidante Choi Soon-Sil, the woman at the centre of the scandal, is already on trial.
But if the court does not uphold Park's impeachment she would immediately return to office to see out her five-year term, which ends next February.
Depending on the verdict, South Korea will hold its next presidential election in either May or December.
The current front-runner, by a distance, is Moon Jae-In, former leader of the opposition Democratic Party, who had the support of 36.1 percent in a Realmeter poll released on Thursday.