The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What you need to know about South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol

Yoon Suk-yeol, the newly elected president of South Korea, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Lee Young-ho/Sipa Press/Bloomberg News)

SEOUL — Yoon Suk-yeol, formerly the country’s top prosecutor, was elected president of South Korea on Wednesday, ushering in an era of conservative party rule that would significantly shift the country’s policies in the face of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s rise.

Yoon, 61, is a political novice who rose through the ranks of local and national prosecutor’s offices and notably helped convict former president Park Geun-hye in her impeachment trial. Yoon’s single five-year term as president begins in May, after he won by less than a 1 percentage point margin in the most closely contested presidential election in the country’s democratic history.

Yoon’s victory marks the end of a dramatic and vitriolic run against liberal Lee Jae-myung, and a return to power for the conservative party after five years of Democratic rule. Here’s what you need to know about South Korea’s new president.

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was elected South Korea's next president on March 10, in one of the country’s most closely fought presidential election. (Video: Reuters)

South Korean conservative candidate wins close-fought, divisive presidential election

Hard-line stance on North Korea

The Yoon victory could have big ramifications for South Korea’s role in Northeast Asia and its relations with the United States, primarily by hardening its approach to China and North Korea.

After outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who made diplomacy with North Korea central to his foreign policy ambitions, a Yoon presidency would mark an about-face on inter-Korean relations. Yoon has called for greater cooperation with Washington to confront the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

Yoon also wants to develop technology that would allow South Korea to launch a preemptive attack, in the case of an imminent North Korean nuclear threat.

He views international sanctions as necessary to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — a hawkish stance that means he would align with U.S. goals on denuclearization, rather than playing a mediator role that Moon took on as he sought to bring North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump to negotiations.

Closer to the U.S. in the face of China

Consistent with the conservative People Power Party’s long-held stance, Yoon has emphasized a stronger U.S.-South Korea alliance, especially with an eye toward North Korea.

He has called on South Korea to play a greater role in its relationship with the United States by cooperating on “new frontier” issues that are key to the U.S.-China economic competition and would draw on South Korea’s advanced technology industry, such as supply chain resiliency through semiconductors and electric-vehicle batteries, space and cybersecurity.

South Korea’s pivotal presidential election marred by scandals, bickering and insults

Yoon has tried to balance his country’s conflicting security and economic interests on China issues. He has said South Korea would cooperate more with the Quad security alliance — the United States, Australia, India and Japan — but has not suggested a formal membership in the grouping.

He has spoken against “violations of liberal democratic norms and human rights,” but when asked to clarify how he would handle China’s human rights violations, he declined to discuss “a hypothetical question.”

Markets forces to save the economy

Yoon supports market-led approaches to spurring economic growth and creating jobs, and said he would cut corporate regulations to help make that happen.

Amid widespread complaints over soaring housing costs, Yoon has pledged to reduce real estate taxes, which would benefit those who are wealthier or own multiple homes, and build 2.5 million new homes, including small homes below market prices that people in their 20s and 30s can purchase.

South Korean candidate disavows ‘feminist’ label on International Women’s Day after interview goes awry

Individual rights over women’s rights

Gender was a lightning-rod issue in the campaign, especially among young Koreans in their 20s. Yoon has appealed to disaffected young men who are frustrated at the outgoing administration’s policies to encourage women to enter and stay in the workforce. He has vowed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, which has become a flash point for the gender war in South Korea.

Yoon said he believes in focusing on individuals’ needs rather than dividing the population along gender lines.