Yoon Seok-youl, a conservative former prosecutor and relative political newcomer, will become South Korea’s next president.
Yoon defeated his liberal rival, ex-provincial governor Lee Jae-myung, in a bitterly contested election that many observers say was one of the ugliest in South Korea’s 35-year-old democracy.
With 98% of votes counted from the Wednesday election, Yoon led Lee by about 260,000 votes. At about 4:00 a.m. local time Thursday, Lee conceded defeat.
Yoon will take over the world’s 10th largest economy, and Asia’s fourth largest, during a time of deepening social division and economic challenges. He will become president in May, replacing Moon Jae-in, who was limited to a single five-year term.
On foreign policy, Yoon has promised a tougher stance toward North Korea, which has recently ramped up provocative missile tests, and China, which is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Yoon also vows to improve South Korea’s relationship with Japan, its former colonial ruler, and to prioritize Seoul’s alliance with Washington.
Perhaps Yoon’s most striking domestic initiative is his promise to eliminate South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. During the campaign, Yoon courted young men, many of whom oppose feminism. Yoon has said there is “no structural discrimination” against women, despite South Korea being at or near the bottom of most global rankings on gender equality in developed countries.
The 61-year-old Yoon came to political prominence as he led the investigation of former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017 and convicted on corruption charges. Park, a conservative icon, was the daughter of longtime military dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated.
Park’s impeachment had left conservative South Koreans bewildered and divided. Yoon’s victory may help heal some of those rifts, analysts say. However, Yoon will be restrained by the left-leaning Democratic Party, which has a supermajority in the country’s legislature. “And there are two more years left before the next general election, so there’s not much he can do,” said Kim Min-ha, a South Korean political commentator and author.
But not everyone agrees.
“Many of the changes he wants to make can be done from within the executive branch,” says Darcie Draudt, a Korea specialist and postdoctoral fellow at the George Washington Institute of Korean Studies. She says much will depend on how the main liberal party responds to defeat.
“Historically, losing parties in the presidential elections will face internal crises and reform themselves, break off into smaller satellite parties, and rally around new charismatic politicians with strong voices,” she said. “Given voters' ambivalence for both major candidates this cycle and the mudslinging across campaigns, there might be internal disputes within the [Democratic Party] that could distract from restraining Yoon's initiatives.”
Both Yoon and Lee were extremely unpopular, opinion polls suggested, leading many domestic media outlets to refer to the race as the “election of the unfavorables.”
Though South Korea faces skyrocketing housing prices, high youth unemployment and a coronavirus pandemic-induced economic slowdown, the campaign instead focused on high-profile corruption allegations and salacious personal scandals.
Yoon has been dogged by accusations he relies on shamanism and superstition. During a television debate, he was forced to deny he met with an unlicensed religious medical practitioner who specializes in anal acupuncture.
Lee, the liberal, faced questions of whether he knew about or was involved in a snowballing real estate corruption scandal during his time as mayor of a town on the outskirts of Seoul.
Yoon has threatened to launch investigations of Moon, as well his rival, Lee. Yoon also compared his rivals in the ruling party to Hitler and Mussolini.
South Korea has long seen fierce battles between conservatives and liberals. It can often feel like a zero-sum game; every living former president has been convicted of crimes, many after their political rivals took power.