SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans wrapped in mufflers and parkas braved frigid weather Wednesday to vote in a presidential election heading for a close finish between the two top candidates — the liberal son of North Korean refugees and the conservative daughter of a late dictator.
For all their differences, the candidates hold similar views on the need to engage with Pyongyang and other issues.
One big reason: Many voters are dissatisfied with current President Lee Myung-bak, including with his hard-line stance on the country’s authoritarian rival to the north. Park Geun-hye, who belongs to Lee’s party, has had to tack to the center in her bid to become South Korea’s first woman president.
Earlier polls showed Park and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in in a dead heat in the race to lead Asia’s fourth-largest economy and an important U.S. security bulwark in the region.
‘‘Everything’s now at heaven’s disposal,’’ Moon told reporters at a polling station in the southeastern port city of Busan. ‘‘I have put forward every bit of my energy.’’
Park, a five-term lawmaker, voted in Seoul and said she would wait for the ‘‘people’s choice with a humble mind,’’ calling on voters to ‘‘open a new era’’ for their nation.
South Koreans express deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Lee in corruption scandals.
Many voters blame Lee’s hardline views for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch by Pyongyang last week that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
‘‘I skipped breakfast to vote. I've been waiting to vote for five years. I think it’s time to change the government,’’ said 37-year-old Kim Young-jin, who voted for Moon at a polling station inside an apartment complex.
At one polling station in Seoul, young and old voters alike stood in line, despite a bitter cold snap. Wednesday is a national holiday in South Korea. Electric stoves inside the polling station warmed the line of voters that stretched longer as the sun rose. Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time. Some voters blew on their freezing hands as they hurried into the polling station.
‘‘I believe in Park,’’ Choi Yong-ja, a 59-year-old housekeeper, said as she left a polling station at a Seoul school. ‘‘She has abundant political experience.’’
The effort to create distance with incumbent Lee has been more difficult for Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative, anti-North Korea base of mostly older voters.
Both candidates propose pulling back from Lee’s insistence that engagement with North Korea be linked to so-far-nonexistent nuclear disarmament progress by Pyongyang. Park, however, insists on more conditions than Moon.
Moon is a former chief of staff to Lee’s predecessor, late President Roh Moo-hyun, who championed the so-called ‘‘sunshine policy’’ of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
Moon wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Park has also held out the possibility of such a meeting, but only if it’s ‘‘an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.’’
Whoever wins the presidential Blue House will set the initial tone for new North Korea policy not just in Seoul but in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. All those governments have recently undergone an election, a change of leadership or both.
A Moon election could lead to friction with Washington if new engagement with Pyongyang comes without any of the reciprocal nuclear disarmament progress that Washington demands from the North.
Moon and Park also agree on the need to fight widespread government corruption, strengthen social welfare, help small companies, close growing gaps between rich and poor, ease heavy household debt and rein in big corporations that have grown so powerful they threaten to eclipse national laws. They differ mainly in how far they want to go.
Moon wants to drastically expand welfare, while Park seeks more cautious improvement in the system, out of concern that expanding too much could hurt the economy, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
Both candidates also have promised to strengthen the alliance with the United States while boosting economic ties with China.
Park is aiming to make history as the first female leader in South Korea — and modern Northeast Asia. But she also works under the shadow of her father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.Continued...