As a star prosecutor, Yoon Suk-yeol, the leading conservative candidate, helped imprison two former presidents as well as the head of Samsung and a former chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court on charges of corruption.
Now, Mr. Yoon hopes to become president himself by appealing to South Koreans who are deeply dissatisfied with the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
Mr. Moon’s government and his Democratic Party have been rocked by a series of scandals that exposed ethical lapses and policy failures around sky-high housing prices, growing income inequality and a lack of social mobility.
“Up until recently, I had never imagined entering politics,” Mr. Yoon said in a recent campaign speech. “But the people put me in the position I am in now, on a mission to remove the incompetent and corrupt Democratic Party from power.”
Mr. Yoon was born in Seoul on Dec. 18, 1960. His father was a college professor and his mother a former teacher. A graduate of the Seoul National University, he became a prosecutor in 1994 after passing the bar exam on his ninth try. He eventually made his name as an anti-corruption investigator who didn’t flinch under political pressure while going after some of the country’s richest and most powerful.
“I don’t owe my loyalty to anyone,” Mr. Yoon famously said during a parliamentary hearing in 2013.
It was under Mr. Moon that Mr. Yoon became a household name in South Korea, first as senior investigator and then as prosecutor general. He spearheaded the president’s anti-corruption campaign, investigating the links between Samsung, South Korea’s most powerful conglomerate, and two former conservative presidents, Park Geun-hye and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
But then Mr. Yoon started clashing with Mr. Moon’s government, as prosecutors under his leadership began investigating allegations of wrongdoing involving the president’s political allies, such as Cho Kuk, a former justice minister.
The conservative opposition, which had earlier vilified Mr. Yoon as a political henchman, suddenly began calling him a hero. Last year, he stepped down as prosecutor general and won the presidential nomination from the main conservative People Power Party. If elected, he would be the first former prosecutor to become president in South Korea.
Although this presidential bid is Mr. Yoon’s first try at elected office, he has a powerful support base among conservative South Koreans who want to punish Mr. Moon’s government for its perceived policy failures, yet have no confidence in the current leadership of the People Power Party.
“Yoon is like Trump,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a political scientist at Myongji University in Seoul. “He is an outsider running to shake up the establishment.”