SEOUL – A corrupt prosecutor turned opposition leader has won an extremely close presidential election in South Korea, with conservatives returning to power calling for a more confrontational stance against North Korea and a stronger alliance with the United States.
With 98 percent 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 relented early Thursday. It was the most exciting race in South Korea since it began holding free presidential elections in 1987.
Mr. Yoon will replace President Moon Jae-in, a progressive leader whose only five-year term ends in May.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Moon’s government. The inability to curb skyrocketing house prices angered voters. So did #MeToo and corruption scandals in which Mr. Moon’s political allies, as well as a lack of progress in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
†This was not an election for the future, but an election in which we look back to assess Moon’s government,” said Prof. Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “By choosing Yoon, people wanted to punish Moon’s government they found incompetent and hypocritical and demand a more just society.”
But, as the good results showed, the electorate was closely divided, with many voters complaining about the choice between ‘unlikables’.
Yoon’s opponent, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, acknowledged the cracks in his country in his concession speech. “I sincerely ask the President-elect to lead the country across the divide and conflict and open an era of unity and harmony,” he said.
The victory for Mr Yoon, who is 61, brings conservatives back to power after five years in the political wilderness. His People Power Party was in disarray after the ouster of its leader, President Park Geun-hye, who helped convict and imprison Mr. Yoon on corruption charges. Mr Yoon, who also went after another former president and head of Samsung, was recruited by the party to trigger a conservative revival.
The election was closely watched by both South Korea’s neighbors and the United States government. Mr. Yoon’s election could turn the current president’s progressive agenda upside down, especially his policy of seeking dialogue and peace with North Korea. As president, Mr Moon has met three times with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, but that hasn’t stopped Mr Kim from rapidly expanding his nuclear weapons program.
Mr Yoon has strongly criticized Mr Moon’s approach to North Korea, as well as to China.
He insists that UN sanctions be enforced until North Korea is fully denuclearized, a position closer to Washington’s than Mr Moon’s, and anathema to North Korea. Yoon has also called for the ramping up of joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States – which were phased out under Mr Moon – another stance likely to startle North Korea, which could now heighten tensions through more weapons tests.
“Peace is meaningless unless it is backed by power,” Mr Yoon said during the campaign. “War can only be avoided if we acquire the ability to launch preemptive strikes and demonstrate our willingness to use them.”
Mr Moon has managed to maintain a balance between the United States, South Korea’s main ally, and China, its largest 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 superpowers “a contest between liberalism and authoritarianism.”
North Korea is likely to trigger Mr Yoon’s first foreign policy crisis.
It has conducted a series of missile tests this year and could see Mr Yoon’s confrontational rhetoric as the incentive it needs to further escalate tensions.
“We will see North Korea return to a power-for-power standoff, at least early in Yoon’s term,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. .
mr. Yoon was Attorney General under Mr. moon. His political position rose among conservative South Koreans when he stepped down last year and became a bitter critic of his former boss. Pre-election polls had shown that South Koreans dislike Mr. Yoon would vote because they liked him rather than their anger at Mr. Moon and his Democratic Party.
“This was such a hot and heated race,” Mr. Yoon told a rally of supporters at the National Assembly Library. “But the competition is over and now it’s time for us to join forces for the people and the nation.”
Growing uncertainty, exacerbated by two years of Covid restrictions, has made many, especially young people, concerned about the future.
“We are the betrayed generation,” said Kim Go-eun, 31, who works for a supermarket chain. “We learned that if we studied and worked hard, we would have a decent job and an economically stable life. None of that has come true.
“No matter how hard we try, we see no chance of joining the middle class,” she said.
The campaign also exposed a nation deeply divided over gender conflict. mr. Yoon was accused of giving in to widespread sentiments against China and against feminists among young men, whose support proved crucial to his victory. Exit polls showed that voters in their 20s were highly divided along the gender line, with men preferring Mr. Yoon and women to Mr. Lee.
Young men said they were attracted to Mr. Yoon for speaking to some of their deepest concerns, such as the fear that an influx of immigrants and a growing feminist movement would further erode their job prospects. Professor Ahn compared the phenomenon to ‘Trumpism’.
“We may not be completely happy with Yoon, but he’s the only hope we have,” said Kim Seong-heon, 26, a university student in Seoul who lives in a windowless room barely big enough to fit in a bed. to suit. 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 may face fierce opposition from the National Assembly, where Mr Moon’s Democratic Party has a majority. Mr Yoon’s campaign promise to abolish the country’s gender equality ministry could be particularly controversial.
He also has to deal with an embittered, disillusioned audience.
Almost daily, new allegations of legal and ethical misconduct surfaced to question Mr. Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, and his rival, Mr. Lee.
Many voters felt they were faced with an unattractive choice.
“It wasn’t about who you like more, it’s about who you hate less,” said Jeong Sang-min, 35, a logistics employee at an international clothing company.