Yoon Suk-yeol wins South Korean presidency

SEOUL — A graft prosecutor turned opposition leader has won a bitterly close presidential election in South Korea, restoring conservatives to power with calls for a more confrontational stance against North Korea and a stronger alliance with states -United.

With 98% of the vote counted, opposition leader Yoon Suk-yeol led by a margin of 263,000 votes, or 0.8 percentage points, when his opponent conceded early Thursday. It was South Korea’s tightest race since it began holding free presidential elections in 1987.

Mr. Yoon will replace President Moon Jae-in, a progressive leader whose single five-year term ends in May.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Moon’s government. His failure to rein in soaring house prices angered voters. So did #MeToo and the corruption scandals involving Mr. political allies of Moon, as well as a lack of progress in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It was not an election for the future, but a retrospective election to judge the Moon administration,” said Professor Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “By electing Yoon, people wanted to punish Moon’s government, which they deemed incompetent and hypocritical, and demand a fairer society.”

But, as the close results showed, the electorate was narrowly divided, with many voters lamenting a choice between the “unappreciable”.

Mr Yoon’s opponent, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, acknowledged his country’s divisions in his concession speech. “I sincerely ask the president-elect to lead the country out of division and conflict and usher in an era of unity and harmony,” he said.

Victory for Mr Yoon, who is 61, brings the Tories back to power after five years in the political wilderness. His People Power Party was in disarray following the impeachment of its leader, Chairwoman Park Geun-hye, whom Mr Yoon helped convict and jail for corruption. Mr Yoon, who also sued another former chairman and the head of Samsung, was recruited by the party to organize a conservative revival.

The election was closely watched by South Korea’s neighbors and the United States government. The election of Mr. Yoon could upset the progressive program of the current president, in particular his policy of seeking dialogue and peace with North Korea. As president, Mr. Moon met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times, although that did nothing to stop Mr. Kim from rapidly expanding his nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Yoon strongly criticized Mr. Moon’s approach to North Korea, as well as China.

He insists that UN sanctions must be applied until North Korea is completely denuclearized, a position that aligns more closely with Washington’s than Mr. Moon’s, and is anathema to North Korea. Mr Yoon also called for stepping up joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States – which have been scaled back under Mr Moon – another position likely to irritate North Korea, which could now increase tensions through more weapons testing.

“Peace only makes sense if it is backed by power,” Yoon said during the campaign. “War can only be avoided when we acquire the ability to launch preemptive strikes and show our willingness to use them.”

Mr Moon maintained a balance between the United States, South Korea’s most important ally, and China, its biggest trading partner – an approach known as “strategic ambiguity”. Mr Yoon said he would show “strategic clarity”. and favor Washington. He called the rivalry between the two great powers a “contest between liberalism and authoritarianism”.

North Korea will likely pose Mr. Yoon’s first foreign policy crisis.

He has conducted a series of missile tests this year and could see Mr Yoon’s divisive rhetoric as the spur he needs to escalate tensions further.

“We will see North Korea return to a power-on-power stalemate, at least early in Yoon’s tenure,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korean expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Kyungnam University. in Seoul.

Mr. Yoon served as attorney general under Mr. Moon. His political stock rose among conservative South Koreans when he quit last year and became a bitter critic of his former boss. Pre-election polls had indicated that South Koreans would vote less for Mr. Yoon because they liked him than to show their anger at Mr. Moon and his Democratic Party.

“It was such a hot and passionate race,” Yoon said at a rally of supporters at the Library of the National Assembly. “But the competition is over and now is the time for us to join forces for the people and the nation.”

Growing uncertainty, compounded by two years of Covid restrictions, has left many, especially young people, anxious about the future.

“We are the betrayed generation,” said Kim Go-eun, 31, who works for a chain of convenience stores. “We were taught that if we studied and worked hard, we would have a decent job and an economically stable life. None of this happened.

“No matter how hard we try, we see no chance of joining the middle class,” she said.

The campaign also revealed a nation deeply divided over gender conflict. Mr Yoon has been accused of pandering to widespread anti-China and anti-feminist sentiment among young men, whose support proved crucial to his victory. Exit polls showed voters in their twenties split sharply by gender, with men favoring Mr. Yoon and women favoring Mr. Lee.

The young men said they were drawn to Mr. Yoon because he spoke about some of their deepest concerns, such as fears that an influx of immigrants and a growing feminist movement could further erode their opportunities employment. Professor Ahn compared the phenomenon to “Trumpism”.

“We may not be completely satisfied with Yoon, but he’s the only hope we have,” said Kim Seong-heon, 26, a university student in Seoul who lives in a barely big enough windowless room. to squeeze into a bed. and closet.

Mr. Yoon promised deregulation to boost investment. He also pledged 2.5 million new homes to make housing more affordable.

But the newly elected president could face fierce resistance in the National Assembly, where Mr Moon’s Democratic Party holds a majority. Mr Yoon’s campaign promise to abolish the country’s ministry of gender equality could prove particularly controversial.

He must also face a bitter and disenchanted public.

New allegations of legal and ethical misconduct have emerged almost daily to cast doubt on Mr. Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, as well as his rival, Mr. Lee.

Many voters felt they were faced with an unappealing choice.

“It wasn’t about who you like best, but who you dislike least,” said Jeong Sang-min, 35, a logistics manager at an international clothing company.

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