In a nail-biting vote, the opposition leader won 48.56% of the ballot share, ahead of Lee’s 47.83%, with 99.99% of the total votes counted, South Korea’s National Election Commission said on Thursday.
Incumbent Moon Jae-in was not allowed to run for a second term as the presidency is a single term of five years in South Korea.
In a speech at party headquarters in Seoul, Lee blamed himself for the defeat.
“Fellow Koreans, we did our best, but we did not live up to expectations,” he said. “I would like to express my apologies to the many citizens of the country who have left their daily lives behind and have been with us. Thank you for your passionate devotion,” he added, according to Lee’s campaign.
“This is all because of my shortcomings. This is not your defeat nor the Democratic Party’s defeat. All responsibility rests solely on me,” he said.
Yoon pledged unity in his victory speech. “Now, the competition is over, and we should unite for the people and the Republic of Korea,” he said, adding, “Today’s result is a victory by the great people.”
Yoon is a newcomer to politics, having spent the last 27 years of his career as a prosecutor. He began his political career after serving as the chief prosecutor that led high-profile investigations into corruption scandals that plagued President Moon’s aides.
Yoon’s victory puts the Korean government back in conservative hands, more than five years after conservative Park Geun-hye was impeached over her own corruption scandal.
Yoon must deal with threats from North Korea, rising tensions between the US and China, and lead South Korea through the next stage of the pandemic.
Lee sent congratulations to his rival: “Congratulations to Yoon Suk Yeol. I earnestly ask the President elect to usher in an era of unity and harmony beyond division and conflict.”
“I still believe in our people. Our people were great. Even during the Covid-19 crisis, you showed a high sense of democracy with a high voter turnout. As long as you are there, Korea will keep moving forward. I hope that we will overcome the Covid-19 crisis as soon as possible and return to our daily lives,” Lee said.
South Korea elects opposition conservative Yoon Suk Yeol to be next president