An elderly woman is assisted in casting her ballot in the presidential election at a polling station in Nonsan, about 190km south of Seoul. Photo by Reuters
South Koreans voted in freezing winter temperatures for a new
president in a battle between the daughter of their former
military ruler and a man her father jailed for political
The next president of Asia's fourth largest economy will have
to deal with a hostile North Korea, under young and untested
new leader Kim Jong-un, and a slowing domestic economy.
Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye had a narrow lead in
polls published last week, the last allowed under election
rules. If she wins, she would be the first woman leader of
the country, which is still largely run by men in dark suits.
"I trust her. She will save our country," said Park Hye-sook,
67, who voted in the same polling station as her namesake and
was out with a friend doing her morning exercises when she
heard that Park Geun-hye was about to arrive.
"Her father ... rescued the country," the housewife and
The 60-year-old daughter of Park Chung-hee has pledged
dialogue with impoverished North Korea, whose rocket launch
last week reinforced fears it is developing a long-range
missile. She has promised a tough line on the isolated
North's nuclear and missile programmes.
Park, wearing a red muffler, was cheered by crowds chanting
her name as she entered the polling station and urged voters
to "open a new era".
Her left-of-centre challenger, Moon Jae-in, is a former human
rights lawyer who has promised unconditional aid for North
Korea and to reintroduce an engagement policy that ushered in
closer ties between the Cold War rivals.
Those ties started unravelling with the shooting by North
Korea of a tourist from the South in 2008, and deteriorated
with the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, which the
North denies, and the shelling of a South Korean island the
Moon cast his ballot in the southern city of Busan and said
voters left disenchanted by five years of conservative rule
under Lee Myung-bak, who is constitutionally limited to a
single term, had the chance to "change the world with their
Gangnam style promise
More than 40 million people are eligible to vote and
political analysts have said turnout has to be in the high 70
percent range for Moon to win. Moon has promised to perform
global pop sensation Psy's Gangnam Style "horse dance" if
turnout is 77 percent.
The polls opened at 6am (local time) and close at 6pm, when
the three network television stations will announce the
result of a jointly conducted exit poll.
Five hours into voting, 10.7 million South Koreans amounting
to 26.4 percent of the electorate, had braved freezing
temperatures to cast their ballots, a higher turnout than
five years ago, according to the state election commission.
The cold weather - minus 10degC in the capital Seoul early in
the day and forecast to remain below freezing throughout the
day - was likely to have an impact on turnout, which had been
expected to be high.
Many analysts forecast a tight race between the two
front-runners, who were separated by as little as 0.5
percentage point in some polls, with Moon making late gains
While Park's bid to become president has stirred debate and
divisions about her father's rule, and the prospect of a
nuclear-armed North Korea also hangs over the country, the
main issue in the election has been the economy.
While outwardly successful and home to some of the world's
biggest companies, such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai
Motor, South Korean society has become steadily more unequal.
The hundreds of thousands of graduates that its universities
churn out each year complain they have trouble finding decent
jobs and, while South Korea is now the 29th richest country
in the world in terms of gross domestic product per capita,
income differentials have widened sharply.
Park has proposed more social welfare under what she terms
"economic democratisation" but has given few specifics. Her
party says it will not spend more money to boost the economy.
Park, who has never married nor had children, has advocated a
broader welfare policy than when she ran five years ago, when
she failed to win the conservative presidential nomination,
and has proposed paying for it by cutting wasteful spending.
Moon, by contrast, has proposed an $US18 billion jobs
package, boosting maternity pay and taxing the super-rich. He
has also pledged to repeal a controversial free trade
agreement with the United States.
While North Korea was the main issue for just 4.7 percent of
voters, according to a poll by broadcaster SBS taken last
week, the 18-year rule of Park's father still divides Koreans
and will be on the minds of many voters.
The elder Park took power in a 1961 coup and helped push
South Korea from poverty to developed nation status, but at
the cost of repressing human rights and democracy.
His wife was shot by a North Korean-backed assassin who was
gunning for him in 1974 and his then young daughter took on
the role of South Korea's first lady until Park's own killing
in 1979 by his security chief after a drunken night out.
Park has at times sought to appeal to the spirit that her
father embodied. On Tuesday she evoked his economic call to
arms of "Let's Live well" in a bid to rally her party
But at other times she has stumbled over apologies to victims
of her father's rule and sought to appeal to her mother's
Moon, jailed in 1975 when he was a student activist, has
attacked Park "for living the life of a princess". His only
political experience was as an aide to former President Roh
Moo-hyun, who was his law partner.