By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG – Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative former prosecutor and foreign policy neophyte, was elected president of South Korea in a victory that should herald a desire to seek a stronger alliance with states. United States and take a tougher line on North Korea.
With more than 99% of the votes counted early Thursday, Yoon of the main opposition People Power Party had 48.6% to 47.8% for ruling Liberal Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung. It was the most contested presidential election in South Korea.
A crowd of supporters gathered near Yoon’s home and his party’s campaign office, shouting his name in celebration.
“This is the victory of our great people,” Yoon said in his victory speech at the party office. “I would respect our constitution and parliament and work with the opposition party to properly serve our people.”
Yoon is due to take office in May and serve a single five-year term as leader of the world’s 10th largest economy.
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Earlier, Lee, a former governor of Gyeonggi province, admitted defeat at his party headquarters.
“I tried my best, but I didn’t live up to expectations,” Lee said sullenly. “I congratulate candidate Yoon Suk Yeol. I sincerely request the president-elect to overcome divisions and conflicts and usher in a new era of unity and harmony.
Wednesday’s election boiled down to a two-way showdown between Yoon and Lee, who spent months slamming, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory. Their fights deepened already serious national divisions and fueled speculation that the losing candidate could face criminal investigations into scandals to which they have been linked.
After winning the election, Yoon said his run with Lee and other candidates improved South Korean politics. “Our competition is over for the moment. We must combine our forces and become one for our people,” he said.
Critics say neither Yoon nor Lee presented a clear strategy on how to mitigate the threat from North Korea and its nuclear weapons. They also say voters are skeptical about how the two would handle international relations amid the U.S.-China rivalry and how they would tackle worsening economic inequality and runaway housing prices.
Yoon said he would deal harshly with North Korean provocations and seek to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo to neutralize North Korean nuclear threats. He made it clear that a strengthened alliance with the United States would be at the center of his foreign policy. Yoon said he would take a more assertive stance on China.
Lee, for his part, had called for greater reconciliation with North Korea and diplomatic pragmatism amid the US-China clashes.
Some experts say Yoon’s foreign policy would bring Seoul closer to Washington, but he cannot avoid friction with Pyongyang and Beijing.
“We can expect the alliance to work more smoothly and be largely in sync on North Korea, China, and regional and global issues,” said Duyeon Kim, senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security. from Washington. “Yoon’s main challenge is whether he will listen to his advisers and whether he is truly capable of being tougher on North Korea and China when faced with political and geo-economic realities after his term. .”
Yoon was liberal President Moon Jae-in’s current attorney general, but resigned and joined the opposition last year following infighting over investigations into Moon’s allies. Yoon said the investigations were objective and principled, but Moon supporters said he was trying to thwart Moon’s prosecution reforms and elevate his own political position.
Yoon’s critics attacked him for his lack of experience in party politics, foreign policy and other key state affairs. Yoon replied that he would let experienced officials handle state affairs that require expertise.
On domestic issues, Yoon has been accused of stoking gender animosities by embracing a Trump-style brand of divisive identity politics that catered almost exclusively to men. He has pledged to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in an apparent attempt to win the votes of young men who speak out against gender equality policies and the loss of traditional privileges in a market hyper-competitive work.
An immediate priority for Yoon would be to contain an unprecedented wave of coronavirus infections caused by the omicron, which has erased the country’s hard-won pandemic gains. South Korean health authorities reported a record 342,446 new cases of the virus on Wednesday. Hospitalizations and deaths have also increased.
Healing the country’s deep divide in terms of ideology, regional loyalties and gender would be a crucial task for Yoon. He could otherwise face huge deadlocks in his national agenda and struggle to advance his major policies in the face of a parliament still controlled by Lee’s party.
Yoon has vowed to launch a coalition government with Ahn Cheol-soo, another Conservative candidate who pulled out of the race last week to throw support behind him. Although Ahn’s withdrawal is believed to have contributed to Yoon’s victory, concerns remain about factional infighting among Ahn and Yoon’s associates, observers say.
South Korea’s constitution limits a president to a single five-year term, so Moon could not seek re-election. Moon came to power in 2017 after conservative President Park Geun-hye was impeached and ousted from office following a huge corruption scandal.
While the conservatives were initially in shambles after Park’s fall, Moon’s approval rating at one point reached 83% as he pushed hard to achieve reconciliation with North Korea and immerse himself in the alleged corruption of former Conservative leaders. He eventually faced a strong backlash as talks over North Korea’s nuclear program collapsed and his anti-corruption campaign raised fairness issues.
The provisional turnout was 77.1%, the fifth highest since the country restored direct presidential elections in 1987 after decades of military dictatorship, according to the National Electoral Commission.
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