By: Jeong-Ho Lee.
Former top prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol won election as South Korea’s president, returning the conservative opposition to power after five years and signaling a hawkish turn in the country’s relations with China and North Korea.
Yoon, 61, who had never before sought elected office, defeated former Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party in one of the closest presidential races in the country’s history. Yoon will succeed Moon Jae-in, who had been Yoon’s boss until they had a falling out over investigations into close associates of the president.
“The race is over and now we need to be united as one for the sake of the people and the country,” Yoon told supporters and party officials Thursday morning. He planned to have a formal speech later in the day, his People Power Party said.
Lee earlier conceded defeat and congratulated Yoon on his win. “All responsibility rests solely with me” on the loss, Lee said.
Yoon had 48.6% of the votes, compared with Lee’s 47.8% with 99% of the votes counted. The new leader will take office May 10. He’ll face a parliament where Moon’s party retains a supermajority, virtually ensuring gridlock on many domestic issues.
Yoon is a former prosecutor general and a familiar face in South Korea politics, but a foreign policy novice. He was handpicked by Moon in 2019 with a mandate to make good on the president’s pledges to go after the most powerful. But ties soured after Yoon’s probes included members of the current government and led to the resignations of two of Moon’s justice ministers.
Yoon’s win would return an advocate of a stronger defense to the presidential Blue House, likely leading to a closer embrace of South Korea’s military alliance with the U.S. and support for the Biden administration’s push to bring in allies to build supply chains for crucial materials such as semiconductors that aren’t dependent on China.
It could also mean a chill for relations with neighbors North Korea and China after Yoon said he backed the option of a preemptive strike if Pyongyang posed an immediate threat and called for a new deployment of a U.S.-made missile interceptor system known as THAAD. China banned sales of group tour packages and appearances of Korean celebrities on television shows in retaliation for Seoul’s deployment of the U.S.-led missile shield system about six years ago, despite Beijing’s objection.
With a conservative president, “the expectation is that we will see South Korea be more unequivocal toward the alliance,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at Rand Corp. who previously worked at the CIA. “I don’t think this resetting of South Korean foreign policy is going to happen overnight,” she told Bloomberg Television.
South Korea’s presidents serve a single five-year term and the winner replaces a president who has backed rapprochement with North Korea and largely avoided stances that would rankle China, the country’s biggest trading partner.
Cheon Seong-whun, a security strategy secretary with the former conservative President Park Geun-hye, said the country was likely to play a bigger role in safeguarding international norms and universal values under Yoon.
The new president would “more actively participate in sanctions against Russia and North Korea,” as well as in “naval drills in the Indo-Pacific theater,” Cheon said.
Moon’s administration has been hesitant to take part in U.S-led policies aimed at pushing back against China’s military moves in the region, while the sanctions South Korea has rolled out against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine haven’t been as robust as those of some other U.S. allies.
“Yoon has signaled he will more closely align with the U.S. Although that does not mean South Korea will be in lockstep with the U.S. on all issues, that will not please China,” said Naoko Aoki, a research associate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. “He is more willing to treat China as a threat,” she said.
Economic issues were a top concern for voters. Housing prices have doubled in urban centers such as Seoul during the Moon’s term, while wages have failed to keep pace. This has made home ownership unaffordable for many families over the long term, while inflation unexpectedly accelerated in February, with the turmoil in financial markets caused by Russia’s invasion suggesting there will be little respite for rising prices for the coming months.
On the campaign trail, Yoon promised to narrow the income disparity and implement a 100-day emergency rescue plan for a COVID-hit economy that would provide a quick and hefty financial injection. He also stoked divisions by pledging to shut down the Gender Equality Ministry — despite South Korea having one of the largest gender-based pay gaps in the developed world.
Lee, 57, a former factory worker who later became a civil rights lawyer, had pushed to make the country Asia’s first to introduce universal basic income. The negative tenor of the campaign turned off a lot of voters and increased political acrimony.
“Yoon’s immediate challenge will be dealing with a deeply divided country that largely either detests him or voted for him only because they detested Lee even more,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Center for a New American Security.