Acute division

South Koreans vote in historic election

South Koreans went to the polls Tuesday to choose a new president after Park Geun-Hye was ousted and indicted for corruption, against a backdrop of high tensions with the nuclear-armed North.

Left-leaning Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer, has held a commanding lead in opinion polls for months, with the final Gallup Korea survey before a week-long pre-election blackout giving him 38 percent support
Left-leaning Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer, has held a commanding lead in opinion polls for months, with the final Gallup Korea survey before a week-long pre-election blackout giving him 38 percent support (AFP)

South Koreans went to the polls Tuesday to choose a new president after Park Geun-Hye was ousted and indicted for corruption, against a backdrop of high tensions with the nuclear-armed North.

Voters have been galvanised by anger over the sprawling bribery and abuse-of-power scandal that brought down Park, which catalysed frustrations over jobs and slowing growth.

Left-leaning Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer, has held a commanding lead in opinion polls for months. The final Gallup Korea survey of the campaign gave him 38 percent support, followed by former tech mogul Ahn Cheol-Soo on 20 percent.

"I feel the people's strong will to change the government... we can make it a reality only when we vote," Moon said after casting his ballot with his wife in western Seoul.

Hong Joon-Pyo of Park's Liberty Korea party, who according to the last poll languished in third place in the 13-strong field on 16 percent, urged voters to support him and branded Moon a "pro-Pyongyang leftist".

A record turnout was expected, and 63.7 percent of voters had cast their ballots four hours before the polls closed compared with 59.3 percent at the same point five years ago.

Kim Sun-Chul, 59, said he voted for Moon because "this country needs to restore democracy which has been so undermined by the Park government".

South Korea
South Korea (AFP)

National elections are public holidays in South Korea and nearly 14,000 voting stations opened at 6 am (2100 GMT Monday).

Exit poll results will be available immediately after voting closes at 8 p.m. (11:00 GMT).

The campaign has focused largely on the economy, with North Korea less prominent, but after a decade of conservative rule a Moon victory could mean a sea change in Seoul's approach towards both Pyongyang and key ally Washington.

The 64-year-old -- accused by his critics of being soft on the North -- has advocated dialogue to ease tensions and to bring it to negotiations. He is seen as favouring more independence in relations with the US, Seoul's security guarantor with 28,500 troops in the country.

Their presence, he told reporters during the campaign, was "important not only to our own security but also to the global strategy of the US".

South Korean presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-Soo has been at 20 percent in the polls
South Korean presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-Soo has been at 20 percent in the polls (AFP)

The North has carried out two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches since the start of last year in its quest to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.

Washington has said military action is an option, sending fears of conflict spiralling.

More recently US President Donald Trump has softened his message, saying he would be "honoured" to meet the North's leader, Kim Jong-Un.

Moon also says he would be willing to visit Pyongyang to meet Kim and advocates resumption of some of the inter-Korean projects shuttered by his predecessors, including the Kaesong joint industrial zone.

In Seoul's prosperous Seocho district, 72-year-old doctor Chung Tae-Wan backed Moon's conservative opponent Hong, telling AFP he did so because "security is the most important thing".

Acute division

But for many South Korean voters, corruption, slowing growth, unemployment and even air pollution from China top the list of concerns.

South Korea's rapid growth from the 1970s to 1990s pulled a war-ravaged nation out of poverty but slowed as the economy matured, and unemployment among under-30s is now at a record 10 percent.

Frustration over widening inequality in wealth and opportunities fuelled anger over Park's scandal, which exposed the cosy and corrupt ties between regulators and powerful family-oriented conglomerates, known as chaebols, that have endured for decades.

Park is awaiting trial over corruption for offering governmental favours to top businessmen -- including Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong -- who allegedly bribed her secret confidante, Choi Soon-Sil.

For many South Korean voters, corruption, slowing growth, unemployment, and even air pollution from China top the list of concerns.
For many South Korean voters, corruption, slowing growth, unemployment, and even air pollution from China top the list of concerns. (AFP)

Moon, Ahn and other candidates have promised to reform the chaebols, which dominate the economy and have long been criticised for operating with little scrutiny.

Another issue is relations with top teading partner Beijing, which imposed a series of measures seen as economic retaliation over the deployment of a US anti-missile system, THAAD, in the South.

In an election day editorial, the JoongAng daily said South Korea had been left "adrift" by the "acute division and lack of national leadership" stemming from the corruption scandal and Park's impeachment.

The vote, it said, was a "great opportunity to put the troubled nation back on track".