South Koreans vote for political conservative as new president

SEOUL — South Korean voters have chosen a politically inexperienced conservative as president, in the country’s tightest race. Yoon Suk Yeol has promised a tougher line on North Korea and a closer alliance with the United States

Yoon, 61, of the conservative People’s Power Party, beat Liberal ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung by less than 1 percent. It was the eighth presidential election since democratic elections resumed in 1987 after decades of military rule. Voter turnout, at 77%, was similar to the last vote five years ago.

The president-elect’s promise to crack down on North Korea could mark a sharp break with the policies of the outgoing liberal administration.

“I will provide a principled and determined response to North Korea’s illegal and unreasonable actions, but I will always keep the door open for inter-Korean dialogue,” Yoon said Thursday during his first press conference as president-elect.

Again, Yoon faces many constraints at home. The Democratic Party still holds the majority in parliament and public opinion is deeply divided. In addition to long-standing ideological and geographic divisions, the election outcome also highlighted diverging views among generations and genres.

Incumbent President Moon Jae-in has held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but negotiations have stalled since an abortive summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019.

Yoon said South Korea should conduct a preventive investigation strike against North Korea, if a nuclear attack were imminent.

The Moon administration called for a declaration ending the 1950-1953 Korean War, in order to entice North Korea to return to the negotiating table. But Yoon made it clear that Pyongyang needs to step up efforts towards denuclearization, before receiving security guarantees or economic aid.

Rather than dangling incentives for dialogue, the new administration “will try to increase deterrence and close coordination through the U.S.-Korea alliance”, said Chung Kuyounpolitical scientist at Kangwon National University. [the Republic of Korea, or ROK, is South Korea’s formal name] “So that creates a very different dynamic on the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea has conducted nine missile tests so far this year. The United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted in a Monday report that said Pyongyang may be preparing to resume testing of atomic bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time since 2017.

Some experts, however, believe Pyongyang’s plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal began about three years ago and have a longer timeline.

During the election campaign, Yoon also critical President Moon’s approach to Beijing is too accommodating, especially given the rise of anti-China sentiment in South Korea.

He suggested deploying additional American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, batteries. missilewhich China vehemently opposes.

And Yoon suggested a greater level of cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the “Quad,” a group that includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia, and which Beijing considers as a hostile bloc led by the United States.

During his press conference, Yoon only mentioned building a “relationship of mutual respect” with Beijing and a “future-oriented” relationship with Tokyo.

Seoul and Tokyo have seen their ties hit rock bottom as historic disputes over the history of World War II morphed into broader disputes over trade and security ties. These frictions have been a major headache for Washington as it tries to tighten its network of allies in Asia to take on China.

On the home front, Yoon has sparked controversy with her promise to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The platform was seen as an angling for the votes of disgruntled young male voters, who blame their economic insecurity on feminists and affirmative action for women. Young swing voters make up about a third of eligible voters.

South Korean media polls show around two-thirds of men in their 20s voted for Yoon, while around two-thirds of women in their 20s voted for Lee Jae-myung, the biggest disparity among all. age groups.

With soaring house prices top voters’ list of blame, Yoon vowed to build more homes and cut real estate taxes.

In metropolitan Seoul, where apartment prices have roughly doubled under the Moon administration to an average of $1 million, Yoon won the most votes where property prices are highest. students. About two-thirds of voters in the capital’s posh Gangnam district followed Yoon, compared to half of voters citywide.

Se Eun Gong of NPR in Seoul contributed to this report.

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