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Yoon Seok-youl wins South Korea opposition's presidential primary

Former prosecutor will represent conservatives in face off against Lee Jae-myung

Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl gives an acceptance speech after being named as the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party at a party convention in Seoul on Friday.   © Yonhap/Kyodo

SEOUL -- The line-up in the race for the South Korean presidency became clear on Friday, as the main conservative opposition People Power Party selected former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl as its candidate for next March's poll.

Yoon will face off against Lee Jae-myung of President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party, and other candidates including Ahn Cheol-soo -- a centrist running for the third time. Moon is not able to run again as South Korean presidents are limited to a single five year term.

"People chose me, a political novice, as the presidential candidate. I will surely win the election," Yoon said in his acceptance speech. "This presidential election is a battle between Yoon Seok-youl with common sense and Lee Jae-myung with nonsense. It is a battle between a rationalist and a populist."

Since coming to power in May 2017, Moon has attempted to reconciliate with North Korea and has overseen an economy that has been resilient to the pandemic but has been hampered by soaring property prices and household debt.

Yoon and the DP's Lee are neck-in-neck in polls. Lee had 26% of support among 1,000 people in a Gallup Korea survey this week on who should lead the country, slightly ahead of Yoon on 24%.

Analysts say that the battle between Lee and Yoon will be close, as more and more people want a change of government.

"It's about whether you want to have a new governing party, or not," said Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University. "And people who want a new governing party is about 20% higher than those who don't. It's a tough fight for the DP."

Yoon gained popularity for his thorough investigations against powerful politicians and business moguls including former president Park Geun-hye, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and Hyundai Motor Group Honorary Chairman Chung Mong-koo.

He has also been a consistent thorn in the side of Moon, clashing with the president over investigations against his aides and the government's drive to limit the authority of prosecutors. The prosecutor resigned from his position in March, claiming that principles, and law and order collapsed under Moon's liberal government.

Yoon was born to a middle-class family as his father was a professor at Yonsei University. He studied law at Seoul National University, but failed bar exams eight times. He passed the bar in his ninth trial in 1991.

Although Yoon joined the prosecutors' office later than his classmates, he developed his career successfully, investigating big name politicians and C-suite executives. He was nicknamed as a "swordsman" thanks to the cases including SK's accounting fraud in 2003.

Yoon has said he will make South Korea's growth engine run again by removing unnecessary regulations, promising to support companies by leading a "fourth industrial revolution" to raise the country's potential growth rate.

On North Korea and international relations, the political novice emphasized cooperation with democratic countries. In September, Yoon released a foreign policy and security platform that calls for building a "future-oriented relationship" with Japan. He seeks a summit to set out a new vision for "a future of shared prosperity."

The DP's Lee, the son of a street cleaner, is well known for his clear messages and radical economic policies that include the introduction of a universal basic income.

Lee built his political career by paying 250,000 won ($210) of "youth dividends" per quarter to 24-year-old Seongnam residents when he was mayor of the city. He has adopted the program in Gyeonggi Province -- a province surrounding Seoul that is the country's most populous -- since becoming governor in 2018.

Lee's North Korea policy is similar to the Moon government as he supports engagement with Pyongyang. But he has suggested a "snapback" strategy in denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea, proposing a return to sanctions if Pyongyang does not follow agreements.

On relations with Tokyo, Lee has demanded that Japan apologizes to former comfort women who worked in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

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