Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative former top prosecutor who vowed to teach Kim Jong-Un “manners,” has been elected South Korea’s new president, defeating his chief liberal competitor in one of the country’s most closely fought presidential elections.
Mr Yoon had 48.6% of the votes with more than 98 percent of the ballots counted, compared to 47.8% for his opponent Lee Jae-myung.
A large crowd gathered near Mr Yoon’s Seoul residence early Thursday, yelling his name.
“I didn’t know you’ve come here without sleeping. I thank you for having supported me so far. Thank you, my neighbours,” Mr Yoon said.
Mr Yoon will enter office in May and will oversee the world’s tenth-largest economy for a single five-year term.
Mr Lee, a former governor of Gyeonggi province, had already acknowledged defeat at his party headquarters.
In his words, “I did my best but wasn’t able to live up to expectations.”
“I congratulate candidate Yoon Suk Yeol. I sincerely ask the president-elect to overcome division and conflicts and open a new era of unity and harmony.”
The election was a two-way fight between Mr Yoon of the opposition People Power Party and Mr Lee of the ruling Democratic Party. They spent months criticizing, insulting, and demonizing one other in one of the most acrimonious political campaigns in recent memory, exacerbating the country’s deep schisms.
According to critics, neither contender has given a coherent strategy for mitigating the threat posed by North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
They also claim that people are skeptical about how both candidates will handle foreign relations in the midst of the US-China competition, as well as how they will solve rising economic disparity and skyrocketing home prices.
Mr Yoon has stated that he will respond harshly with North Korean provocations and strive to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.
Mr Yoon has stated that a strengthened partnership with the United States will be at the center of his foreign policy, while taking a more confrontational approach toward China.
Following North Korea’s last alleged ballistic missile launch on Saturday, Mr Yoon accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of attempting to sway the South Korean election outcomes in favor of Mr Lee.
In the words of Mr Yoon in a rally near Seoul, “I would (teach) him some manners and make him come to his senses completely,” .
Mr Lee, for his part, has advocated for deeper reconciliation with North Korea and diplomatic pragmatism in the face of US-China tensions.
The election occurs at a time when South Korea is dealing with an Omicron-driven COVID-19 rise. On Wednesday, health officials reported a record-breaking 342,446 new viral cases. After regular voting closed on Wednesday evening, people sick with the coronavirus cast ballots.
Because the South Korean Constitution only allows a president to serve one five-year term, Mr Lee’s party colleague, President Moon Jae-in, could not run for re-election. Mr Moon took power in 2017 after conservative President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office due to a massive corruption scandal.
With conservatives first in tatters following Ms Park’s demise, Mr Moon’s support rating peaked at 83% as he worked hard to pursue reconciliation with North Korea and investigate suspected corruption by previous conservative presidents.
As talks on North Korea’s nuclear program stalled and his anti-corruption push generated ethical concerns, he eventually faced a significant backlash.
Mr Yoon was Mr Moon’s prosecutor general until resigning and joining the opposition last year due to infighting over investigations of Mr Moon’s associates.
Mr Yoon claimed that the investigations were objective and principled, but Mr Moon’s allies claimed that he was attempting to undermine Mr Moon’s prosecution reforms while also elevating his own political status.
Mr Yoon’s detractors have also pointed out his lack of experience in party politics, foreign policy, and other critical state concerns. Mr Yoon has answered that he will delegate authority over state issues to seasoned people.