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South Korea election

South Korea election: How the night unfolded

Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative candidate, won a very tight race

South Korea's President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a news conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 10.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Koreans on Wednesday picked conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party as their next president.

Yoon, who will be inaugurated in May, beat Lee Jae-myung, a leftist from the ruling Democratic Party by a tiny margin of 48.56% to 47.83%.

Nikkei Asia followed the race and results through the night. See our South Korea Election landing page for the latest developments.

Here's how it happened:

Thursday, March 10 (Seoul time)

11:30 a.m. President-elect Yoon says he will build a strong defense against a rising North Korean nuclear threat, but leave the door open for dialogue with Pyongyang.

10:25 a.m. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida congratulates Yoon Suk-yeol on winning the election, expressing hope to improve relations that have been strained over wartime issues. "I intend to closely work with the new president to improve Japan-South Korea ties," Kishida tells reporters, stressing a healthy relationship between the neighbors is crucial for global peace and stability.

9:11 a.m. With 100% of votes counted, Yoon comes out on top with 48.56%, with Lee just behind at 47.83%. Voter turnout was high at 77.1%, marginally lower than the last election in 2017 when it reached 77.2%. Read the full story here.

4:42 a.m. "It was a hot and passionate race. It was the victory of the great [South Korean] people rather than that of me and the People Power Party," Yoon said after the race was decided. "The competition is over, and it's time to unite for people and the Republic of Korea."

3:51 a.m. Lee concedes election in short speech to supporters.

3:30 a.m. KBS has called the election for Yoon, with a 99% probability. Both candidates are now heading to their respective camps to make speeches. Will be interesting to see whether Lee concedes.

2:23 a.m. With 87.4% of the vote counted, Yoon (48.6%) remains ahead of Lee (47.8%)

2:20 a.m. Broadcaster KBS forecasts that Yoon will likely win the election.

1:49 a.m. The election is heading for a photo finish. Read our latest main story on the race here. With 78.3% of the votes counted, Yoon tallied 48.7%, while Lee stood at 47.8%,

1:06 a.m. Yoon takes a slender lead. With 66.4% of votes counted, the former prosecutor leads Lee by 48.6% to 47.9%.

12:30 a.m. Half the votes are in. Yoon has cut Lee's early lead to about one-tenth of a percentage point. Yoon is on 48.24%, while Lee has 48.35%.

Wednesday

11:58 p.m. With 36.78% of votes counted, Lee led with 48.89%, versus Yoon on 47.78%

11:31 p.m. Yoon is slowly narrowing the gap with Lee. With just over a quarter of votes counted, Lee had 49.83%, while Yoon was on 46.92%.

10:47 p.m. With 10.01% of votes counted, Lee had 50.04% of the vote, ahead of Yoon on 46.76%. Votes cast before election day are being counted first, with analysts saying that is likely to favor Lee in the early stages of counting.

9:30 p.m. Final turnout was 77.1%, just under the 77.2% of people who exercised their right to vote in the previous presidential election in 2017.

8:40 p.m. While waiting for results to start coming in, look at the JTBC cable channel using an AI version of former dictator Park Chung-hee discuss the election.

8:17 p.m. Vote counting begins

7:40 p.m. An exit poll conducted jointly by three major broadcasters of KBS, MBC and SBS had Yoon ahead of Lee by just 0.6 percentage points -- within the margin of error. Yoon had 48.4%, Lee had 47%, and Sim Sang-jung of the leftist Justice Party was third with 2.5%.

But a separate exit poll by JTBC, a cable TV network, Lee was ahead of Yoon by 48.4% to 47.7%.

7:30 p.m. Polls close. The ballot for the general public ended at 6 p.m., with the last 90 minutes of voting reserved for people with COVID-19. The nation is currently seeing a surge in cases.

6 p.m. Turnout was 75.7% as of 6 p.m., up from 72.7% in 2017.

5 p.m. Turnout was 73.6% as of 5 p.m., up from 70.1% in 2017.

3 p.m. Turnout was higher than in 2017 as of 3 p.m., with 68.1% of the electorate having voted compared with 63.7% five years ago, according to the National Election Commission.

Below are some Nikkei Asia stories published in the run-up to election day:

-- The two main candidates have contrasting backgrounds, Nikkei Asia Seoul correspondent Kim Jaewon writes. Lee comes from a poor background and worked factory jobs when he was young. He went on to practice law as a civil rights lawyer before entering politics, serving as the mayor of Seongnam, southeast of Seoul, and then as governor of Gyeonggi Province. Yoon, a political novice, studied law at the elite Seoul National University, before rising through the ranks to become prosecutor general.

-- Our Big Story this week digs into the trials of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and its implications for succession at South Korea's electronics giant. Candidates in South Korean presidential elections usually run with pledges to reform the chaebol -- the powerful family-run conglomerates that dominate the country's economy. But this year, the two front-runners have no such plans to clip the wings of the likes of Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG.

-- Yoon is targeting young male voters who are dissatisfied with what they say is a system that favors their female peers, and plans to abolish the country's gender equality ministry. Lee has been vague on gender politics, but neither seem to be appealing to young women.

-- The war in Ukraine has roiled the race, forcing one top candidate to walk back his reaction and fueling fresh debate over defense on the peninsula. Lee has faced a backlash after he said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's inexperience contributed to Moscow's decision to invade.

-- Contributing writer Steven Borowiec looks at South Korea's economic challenges, most prominently the rising cost of living. Over President Moon Jae-in's five years in power, South Korean real estate prices have risen astronomically, leaving many families unable to purchase homes, while the pandemic wiped out many independent businesses.

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