Conservative South Korean opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol rode to victory in the country’s tight presidential election on a wave of discontent over economic policy, scandals, and gender wars, reshaping the political future of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

His victory in Wednesday’s bitterly fought election means a remarkable turnaround for the main conservative bloc, now known as the People Power Party, which had been struggling to regroup since the 2017 snap election was held after the impeachment and ouster of then President Park Geun-hye.

Yoon has pledged to stamp out graft, foster justice and create a more level economic playing field, while seeking a “reset” with China and a tougher stance toward reclusive North Korea, which has launched a record number of missiles in recent months.

His election could also offer a chance at repairing ties with Japan that have soured over history and economic issues.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday welcomed Yoon’s election and said he hoped to work closely with him to rebuild healthier ties.

“I offer my heartfelt congratulations on his election,” Kishida told reporters.

“Especially now as the international community faces major change, healthy Japan-South Korea relations are … indispensable,” he said, adding that current “fraught” ties needed to improve.

Noting the major shift in global relations amid the Ukraine crisis, Kishida also said trilateral cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea is important.

Regarding the issues of wartime labor and “comfort women” — a euphemism for women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II — Kishida said, “It is important to closely communicate with the new president and his government to regain a healthy relationship based on Japan’s consistent stance (on the matters).”

Bilateral ties have sunk to the lowest level in decades since Seoul effectively nullified a 2015 agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue and South Korea’s top court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to former requisitioned workers, a ruling Tokyo dismissed as a violation of international law.

Yoon also faces the challenge of uniting a country of 52 million riven by gender and generational divisions, growing inequality and surging home prices.

“Real estate prices, housing policy, jobs, and tax policies will top his domestic agenda,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based expert with the Center for a New American Security.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party, attends a campaign rally in Seoul on Tuesday. | REUTERS
Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, attends a campaign rally in Seoul on Tuesday. | REUTERS

He will need to restore public trust in Korea’s institutions and is likely to conduct major “housecleaning” by following through on a campaign pledge to investigate outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s administration for corruption, she added.

Yoon, 60, will replace incumbent Moon, of the center-left Democratic Party, who is constitutionally limited to a single term that will end in May.

A former prosecutor-general initially appointed by Moon before falling out and gaining notoriety over investigations of top presidential aides, Yoon’s lack of elected political experience was seen as both a liability and an asset.

His campaign was marked by gaffes and controversy but benefited as the race became a referendum on Moon’s economic policies from jobs to housing to wealth inequality.

“I would pay attention to people’s livelihoods, provide warm welfare services to the needy, and make utmost efforts so that our country serves as a proud, responsible member of the international community and the free world,” Yoon said at a victory ceremony with supporters.

The election was one of the closest in recent history and came after an unusually bitter campaign marred by scandals and smears. Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election.”

Yoon edged out the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung with 48.6% of the vote to 47.8%, with around 99.8% of the ballots counted as of 5:30 a.m. on Thursday.

The close results, the fact the rival Democratic Party will still control the one-house National Assembly, and his vow to investigate the outgoing administration means Yoon will be hard-pressed to move beyond policy failures and political battles, analysts said.

“After a divided electorate has produced a divided government, Seoul may struggle to pursue policies of reform rather than politics of retribution,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Lee’s loss casts doubt on Moon’s legacy, including his signature efforts to engage with North Korea, which have largely been stalled since talks fell apart in 2019.

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party gestures to supporters during a campaign rally in Seoul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI
South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party gestures to supporters during a campaign rally in Seoul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

The new president will likely face an almost immediate crisis with Pyongyang, which appears to be preparing to launch a spy satellite and has suggested it could resume testing of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons for the first time since 2017.

Yoon has vowed to forge even closer ties with the United States — South Korea’s only treaty ally — in the face of increased missile activity by North Korea and competition with China, which is the South’s largest trading partner.

The White House congratulated Yoon, saying President Joe Biden looked forward to working closely with him to bolster the alliance.

“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 Kim from the Center for a New American Security.

More than 77% of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters cast ballots to pick their next leader, despite an unprecedented surge in new COVID-19 cases — with a record 342,446 posted on Wednesday.

Yoon said he would work with opposition parties to heal polarized politics and foster unity.

“Our competition is over for now,” he said in an acceptance speech, thanking and consoling Lee and other rivals. “We have to join hands and unite into one for the people and the country.”

At a separate ceremony with supporters, Yoon said he would put top priority on “national unity,” adding all people should be treated equally regardless of their regional, political and socioeconomic differences.

Lee had conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent.

“I did my best, but failed to live up to your expectations,” he told a news conference, blaming his “shortcomings.”

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