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With a new president, South Korea will shift to a more conservative administration

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

South Korea elected a new president on Wednesday. It was the country's closest election ever. In May, the country will transition to a new, more conservative president who promises a tough approach to North Korea and a closer alliance with the United States. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. He's been following all this. Hey there, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: For those of us who don't follow South Korean politics daily, who's the new leader?

KUHN: His name is Yoon Suk-yeol. He's 61, and he's a former chief prosecutor who actually helped to impeach the last conservative president five years ago. This man has no previous political experience, and he won by a razor-thin margin of less than 1%. Neither of the candidates in this election was seen as particularly charismatic or likable. A lot of people voted just because either they wanted a change of administration or they voted for a candidate who they felt was the lesser of evils. One of the biggest gripes voters had was astronomic housing prices, especially here in Seoul, and Yoon promised to build more housing and lower real estate taxes. And he did especially well in places where real estate prices were high.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that of all the issues in the world, that home prices would be key. Something to think about as we think about politics in America, as a matter of fact. But you said that he's promising - or we said that he's promising to get tough with North Korea. How would he do that?

KUHN: Well, here's what he told reporters at a briefing this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOON SUK-YEOL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: So he's saying here, "I will make a principled, determined response to North Korea's illegal and unreasonable actions, but I will always keep the door open to inter-Korean dialogue."

Now, the Moon administration that's going out offered concessions as a way of trying to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Yoon says that North Korea's got to denuclearize first. And so he's emphasizing military deterrence, including the possibility of conducting preemptive strikes on North Korea if they detect an imminent attack. And all this could make engagement with Pyongyang more difficult, at least in the short term. Remember that North Korea has already conducted nine missile tests this year.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk about South Korea's gigantic near neighbor, China, which is in an increasingly big rivalry with South Korea's most important ally, the United States. How does he plan to navigate that?

KUHN: Well, he's accused the outgoing Moon administration of being too close to Beijing in - despite anti-China sentiment among the Chinese - the South Korean public. And he's talked about deploying more U.S. missile defenses in South Korea, which Beijing really doesn't like. But Beijing, despite all this, remains a very close neighbor and a trade partner and also an indispensable player in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

INSKEEP: Anthony, one other thing. What does this very close election say about South Korean democracy?

KUHN: Well, the election showed very deep divisions among regions and ideologies, but also among generations and genders. Some conservatives charge that South Korea was persecuting its critics and that democracy in South Korea was backsliding. But voter turnout was very good at 77%. And the loser conceded defeat very quickly, and we appear to be on track for another peaceful handover of power between administrations. In other words, democracy seems to be working.

INSKEEP: Anthony, I always appreciate your insights. Thanks for calling in.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "BACK TO THE START") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.