SEOUL — South Korean voters have chosen an anti-feminist conservative politician to be the country’s next president, in what had been a fiercely close race littered with scandals.
Yoon Suk-yeol defeated his liberal rival Lee Jae-myung by a margin of just 0.73 percentage points when vote counting finished on Thursday morning, making it the country’s tightest presidential race since the present election system was adopted in 1987. He will serve one five-year term starting May.
“This is a victory of the great people,” Yoon said in the early hours of Thursday after Lee conceded. “Now the competition is over. We have to all work together to become one for the sake of the people and country.”
Known for his forceful stance against corruption as the former state prosecutor, Yoon inherits a South Korea contending with rising housing prices, youth unemployment, and a growing nuclear threat from neighboring North Korea. Yoon is also tasked with bridging a severe political divide and bringing stability to an economy dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yoon has promised a break from outgoing president Moon Jae-in’s liberal politics, potentially ushering in a new era of increasingly conservative policies on practically all fronts, especially when it comes to gender issues.
Though new to politics, Yoon quickly built a fanbase among senior citizens and young men who detest feminism. The 61-year-old has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family—formed in 2001 to establish gender-related policies and provide support for victims of domestic and sexual abuse—saying that it treats men like “potential criminals.”
“The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should be abolished as soon as possible since it’s the most useless agency in our government so far,” Yu Jun-beom, a 23-year-old man who voted for Yoon, told VICE World News outside a polling station in Seoul on Wednesday.
“The money that goes into it should be invested in something more valuable,” he said, giving the example of national security.
Yoon has also vowed to introduce tougher penalties for those making false claims of sexual assault and denied that current political and social systems benefit men unfairly.
“He is just not capable of understanding it’s an issue here. His campaign is denying it exists, and is not showing any signs that they will work on promoting gender equality,” Kwon Soo-hyun, president of the Seoul-based civic group Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, told VICE World News.
On national security, Yoon has said he wants to build technology to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea should the need arise.
This would mark a drastic shift from outgoing president Moon’s stance, who promoted the use of diplomacy and conversation with its neighbor to defuse tensions. Although a 1953 armistice ended fighting between the North and the South during the Korean War, the two countries technically remain at war with each other, and the current peace has been tenuous throughout. Yoon also plans on cooperating with the United States to respond to North Korea’s increased nuclear intimidation.
Raised by two professors, Yoon comes from a well-to-do family and studied law at the competitive Seoul National University. He has spent most of his 27-year career as a state prosecutor in both conservative and liberal administrations and served as the country’s top prosecutor general in Moon’s government. He litigated several high profile corruption cases including the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, and has built a reputation as an uncompromising anti-corruption prosecutor.
His rival, 57-year-old Lee Jae-myung, on the other hand, hails from a working class background. After graduating from elementary school, Lee gave up attending middle and high school to make a living and worked at factories. The Andong city native then earned middle and high school equivalency diplomas through self-study and a scholarship at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. Later he became a human rights lawyer.
Lee has proposed expanding public housing and a universal basic income plan that would provide every citizen an annual cash grant of 1 million won ($820). In 2016, he introduced a similar handout—called “youth dividends”—as mayor of Seongnam city, where he paid $204 per quarter to 24-year-old residents.
Throughout the campaign, both Yoon and Lee were hit by name-calling and accusations of corruption.
Yoon accused Lee of involvement in an allegedly corrupt land development scandal while Lee was vying for reelection as Seongnam mayor in 2014. Lee denied the accusations and instead tried to connect Yoon to the same scandal. Lee also tried to link Yoon to shamanism, a sensitive issue after ousted president Park faced allegations of participating in cult rituals.
There was so much mudslinging between the parties that local media called it an election of “unlikables.”