Former conservative prosecutor wins narrow victory in South Korea's presidential election

Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative former prosecutor declared victory in South Korea's presidential election on Thursday. His liberal ruling party rival conceded defeat after a bitter battle in the politically divided nation.

Yoon Suk Yeol beat his ruling liberal party opponent in a politically divided nation

South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol of the main opposition People Power Party celebrates with supporters at the party's headquarters on Thursday in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative former top prosecutor and foreign policy neophyte, was elected South Korea's new president on Thursday, a win expected to herald Seoul's drive to seek a stronger alliance with the United States and take a tougher line on North Korea.

With more than 99 per cent of the ballots counted, People Power Party candidate Yoon won 48.6 per cent of the votes, narrowly edging liberal rival Lee Jae-myung, who garnered 47.8 per cent.

A huge crowd of supporters gathered near Yoon's Seoul home, shouting his name early Thursday.

"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 together with the opposition party to serve our people properly."

Earlier, Lee conceded defeat during a news conference at the campaign office of his Democratic Party, where he congratulated Yoon and called for him to heal the country's divisions.

"I did my best but wasn't able to live up to expectations," a glum Lee said. "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."

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party conceded defeat Thursday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Bitter race aggravated severe divisions

Yoon will take office in May and serve a single five-year term as leader of the world's 10th-largest economy, which is now grappling with stark income inequalities and soaring personal debt while facing growing threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated Yoon following his election. In a statement, Trudeau said he looks forward to working with the next president on several different levels, including standing united with Ukraine in the face of the Russian attack, recovering from the pandemic and enhancing peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

"As the Government of Canada works to develop a new, comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy to strengthen partnerships in the region, we will continue to promote greater prosperity and economic growth that benefits everyone in Canada and South Korea," Trudeau said. 

The election boiled down to a two-way showdown between Yoon and Lee. They spent months slamming, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country's already severe domestic divisions.

After winning the election, Yoon said his race with Lee and other contenders has improved South Korean politics.

"Our competition is over for now. We should combine our strengths and become one for our people," he said.

Critics say neither candidate has presented a clear strategy for how they would ease the threat from North Korea and its nuclear weapons.

They also say voters were skeptical about how both candidates would handle international relations amid the U.S.-China rivalry and how they would address widening economic inequality, runaway housing prices and rates of unemployment and underemployment of university graduates.

Officials from the South Korean Central Election Management Committee and election observers count votes in what would be a very close election. With more than 99 per cent of the ballots counted, Yoon won 48.6 per cent of the votes, narrowly edging Lee, who garnered 47.8 per cent. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Differences on North Korea approach

Yoon says he would sternly deal with North Korean provocations and seek to boost trilateral security co-operation with Washington and Tokyo to neutralize North Korean nuclear threats.

He has made it clear that an enhanced alliance with the United States would be the centre of his foreign policy, and said he would take a more assertive stance on China.

Lee, for his part, had called for greater reconciliation with North Korea and a diplomatic pragmatism amid the U.S.-China confrontations.

Some experts say Yoon's foreign policy stance would put Seoul closer to Washington but he cannot avoid frictions with Pyongyang and Beijing.

"We can expect the alliance to run more smoothly and be in sync for the most part on North Korea, China and regional and global issues," said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at Washington's Center for a New American Security.

"Yoon's key challenge is whether he will listen to his advisers and whether he's able to really be tougher toward North Korea and China when he's faced with political and geo-economic realities after he's in office."

Coronavirus surge an immediate priority

Yoon had been prosecutor general for South Korea's outgoing President Moon Jae-in, but resigned and joined the opposition last year following infighting over probes of Moon's allies. Yoon said those investigations were objective and principled, but Moon's supporters said he was trying to thwart Moon's prosecution reforms and elevate his own political standing.

Yoon's critics have attacked him over a lack of experience in party politics, foreign policy and other key state affairs. Yoon has responded he would let experienced officials handle state affairs that require expertise.

On domestic issues, Yoon was accused of stoking gender animosities by adopting a Trump-like brand of divisive identity politics that spoke almost exclusively to men.

He vowed to abolish the country's Gender Equality and Family Ministry in an apparent bid to win the votes of young men who decry gender equality policies and the loss of traditional privileges in a hyper-competitive job market.

An immediate priority for Yoon would be to contain an unprecedented wave in Omicron-driven coronavirus infections, which has erased the country's hard-won pandemic gains. South Korea's health authorities reported a record 342,446 new virus cases on Wednesday. Hospitalizations and deaths have also been creeping up.

Yoon has promised to launch a coalition government with Ahn Cheol-soo, another conservative candidate who pulled out of the race last week to throw his support behind him.

While Ahn's withdrawal was believed to have contributed to Yoon's victory, there are still worries about factional feuding among Ahn and Yoon's associates, observers say.

With files from Reuters