North Korea a Factor, but Economy Key as South Korea Voters Back Conservative
Yoon pledged during his campaign to support U.S. demands for denuclearization of North Korea.
SEOUL – The conservative Yoon Suk-yeol edged to victory by the slimmest of margins Wednesday in a South Korean presidential election that amounted to a reversal of the liberal tidal wave that lofted Moon Jae-in to the presidency five years ago.
Mr. Yoon, who had served Mr. Moon as prosecutor-general but quit while ferreting out corruption among Mr. Moon’s aides, led by less than 1 percent early Thursday.
“Today’s victory is not only for our national power but a victory for the people,” Mr. Yoon told exultant campaign workers, He promised to “cooperate with the opposition” — a challenge that won’t be easy considering the depth of right-left political anger generated in the campaign — and “listen to the opinions of the public.”
With 99.24 percent of the 33.5 million votes counted as of 4 20 a.m. Korea time, Mr. Yoon had captured 48.59 percent while Lee Jae-myung had 47.78 percent.
That was enough for Korea’s television networks all to project him as the winner after one of the bitterest, hardest fought campaigns since Korea’s democracy constitution of 1987 mandated elections every five years.
The vote, however close, amounted to an historic rejection of policies pursued under Mr. Moon, barred by the constitution from seeking a second term. He failed during his presidency to fulfill his dream of persuading America, North Korea, and China to agree with him on an end-of-war declaration that would have been a step on the way to a peace treaty formally concluding the Korean War, which wound down in 1953 with an armed truce.
While Mr. Moon’s Minjoo or Democratic Party holds a commanding majority in the National Assembly, Mr. Yoon was confident his People Power Party could ram through legislation intended to spur on the economy and assert South Korea’s strength against North Korea.
Mr. Yoon, anxious to repair relations with America badly frayed by skepticism about the end-of-war declaration, pledged during his campaign to support U.S. demands for denuclearization of North Korea. He also was in favor of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and sanctions against North Korea, both of which Mr. Lee wanted to reconsider in the drive to persuade North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to agree to dialogue.
For Mr. Moon, the quest for dialogue with Mr. Kim turned into an embarrassment when North Korea simply ignored his pleas after the failure of the summit at Hanoi in February 2019 with President Trump.
As a further insult to Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, ordered the destruction of a North-South liaison office just above the line with South Korea that had cost the South government about $10 million to build.
Mr. Yoon also was far more emphatic than either President Moon or Mr. Lee in condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Moon has gone along with sanctions against Russia but did not mention President Putin by name or see the invasion as an assault on democracy.
Policy toward America and North Korea, however, may not have been the primary reason why Mr. Yoon fared so well in his first bid for elective office. Voters were also upset by skyrocketing real estate prices and the growing rich-poor gap. Mr. Moon had sought to counter the gap by instituting a minimum wage that small employers, such as owners of shops, said had put them out of business.
“The economy was most important for voters,” a National Assembly member from the nearby port city of Incheon, Yun Sang-hyun, said. “North Korea was secondary to most people.”
As has been the case for years, the voting reflected deep-seated regional differences, Mr. Yoon captured wide majorities from the huge southeastern port of Busan and nearby Daegu, home of the South’s most conservative leaders, including Park Chung-hee, assassinated in 1979.
Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, was president when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in 2016. She was impeached, jailed, and ousted, and was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. By terrific historical irony, Mr. Yoon prosecuted the charges against her while Mr. Moon late last year pardoned and freed her. Hospitalized with a number of ailments, she has said she will live in retirement in her native Daegu.