Turnout High in South Korean Election Focused on Pyongyang and Corruption

By Jonathan Cheng Features Dow Jones Newswires

Following a short campaign that was punctuated by concerns about South Korea's relationships with Pyongyang and Washington, voters in the South are expected to replace the impeached conservative President Park Geun-hye with an ideological rival that she beat in 2012.

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Moon Jae-in, a longtime opposition leader who favors closer ties with the North and China and a more cautious approach to U.S. relations, is expected to emerge victorious in Tuesday's presidential election. Polls close at 8 p.m. and a joint exit poll conducted by three major broadcasters will be released at that time.

At 1 p.m. local time, more than 55% of South Korea's 42.4 million eligible voters had cast ballots, according to the national election commission. That included the roughly 25% of the voting population that cast ballots during early voting last week--a high participation rate that shows intense interest in the race.

For months, polls have shown Mr. Moon's support rate hovering steadily at around 40%. The four other major candidates have been left to tussle for the rest of the votes.

The candidate with the most votes will immediately become the next president, taking the reins of a government that faces slowing growth, high youth unemployment and uncertainties about its relations with Beijing, Pyongyang and Washington. A low-key inauguration ceremony is being planned for Wednesday in the National Assembly.

The election was triggered by the Constitutional Court's unanimous March decision to remove Ms. Park from office following her impeachment. She was accused of helping a friend win bribes from Samsung and other South Korean conglomerates. Ms. Park has denied wrongdoing; her trial is ongoing.

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The abbreviated campaign lasted just 60 days. At first, it was dominated by the corruption concerns that sparked the massive street demonstrations last year, which culminated in the National Assembly's vote in December to impeach Ms. Park.

Since then, a series of North Korean provocations, and U.S. President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials' remarks on the North and the American alliance with South Korea have elevated matters of security. That has played to the strengths of Mr. Moon's conservative rivals, who have criticized him for being too soft on Pyongyang and out of step with Washington.

Mr. Moon has called for more engagement with North Korea, as Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs have become a top focus for the Trump administration. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a policy of pressure and diplomatic isolation at the United Nations.

Mr. Moon also wants better relations with China, after South Korea's decision to push forward with the deployment of a missile-defense system angered Beijing.

While the increased emphasis on security has likely hurt Mr. Moon, his top two challengers have neatly divided support among more conservative voters, denying either of them the needed votes to overtake Mr. Moon.

Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate from Ms. Park's conservative party, has seen his popularity surge in recent weeks as he touted his hard-line credentials, including a proposal to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. The U.S. pulled them out in 1991.

Almost all of Mr. Hong's gains appear to have come at the expense of Ahn Cheol-soo, a former political ally of Mr. Moon who gained traction with voters by portraying himself as a tougher version of the opposition leader. The latest polls showed Mr. Hong's support rising to about 20% support, putting him even with Mr. Ahn.

"I'm most worried about national security and North Korea," said Shim Yeon-sun, who turned up Tuesday to vote for Mr. Hong at a polling station near the lighting store where she works in downtown Seoul.

Ms. Shim, a 55-year-old native of Gongju, about 130 kilometers south of the capital, said despite polls showing Mr. Moon cruising to an easy victory, she wanted to cast her vote in support of Ms. Park, whose impeachment she felt was unjustified.

"I felt that we have really achieved democracy, and if Moon Jae-in wins, democracy will retreat," she said.

Park Kun-woo, a 35-year-old who said he attended all of last year's demonstrations against Ms. Park, said he planned to vote for Mr. Moon. Mr. Park said that Mr. Moon was a better communicator than Ms. Park, who was often criticized for being aloof.

"The previous president was impeached, and I hope that this time, we'll be more careful and choose the right person," Mr. Park said.

Min Sun Lee contributed to this article.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 09, 2017 00:57 ET (04:57 GMT)