SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Yoon Suk Yeol, a former top conservative prosecutor, was elected South Korea’s new president on Thursday, beating his main liberal rival in one of the country’s most contested presidential elections.
With more than 98% of the ballots counted, Yoon obtained 48.6% of the vote against 47.8% for his rival Lee Jae-myung.
Huge crowds of supporters gathered near Yoon’s home in Seoul, shouting his name early Thursday.
“I didn’t know you came here sleepless. Thank you for supporting me so far. Thank you, my neighbors! Youn said. He was expected to deliver an official victory speech soon.
Yoon is due to take office in May and serve a single five-year term as leader of the world’s 10th largest economy.
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.
The election boiled down to a two-way showdown between Yoon of the opposition People Power party and Lee of the ruling Democratic party. They have spent months criticizing, mocking and demonizing each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, deepening the country’s already serious internal divisions.
Critics say neither candidate has presented a clear strategy on how they would 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. Yoon said he would make a stronger alliance with the United States the center of his foreign policy while taking a more assertive stance on China.
Following North Korea’s latest reported ballistic missile launch on Saturday, Yoon accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of trying to sway South Korea’s election results in Lee’s favor.
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“I would (teach) him manners and bring him back to his senses completely,” Yoon said at a rally near Seoul.
Lee, for his part, called for greater reconciliation with North Korea and diplomatic pragmatism amid US-China confrontations.
The election comes as South Korea grapples with an omicron-induced COVID-19 surge. On Wednesday, health authorities reported 342,446 new cases of the virus, a record. Those infected with the coronavirus cast their ballots after regular voting ended on Wednesday evening.
The South Korean Constitution limits a president to a single five-year term, so Lee’s party colleague, President Moon Jae-in, was unable to 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 conservatives were initially in shambles after Park’s fall, Moon’s approval rating at one point reached 83% as he strove to achieve reconciliation with North Korea and delve into 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.
Yoon had served as Moon’s 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 have also 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.