South Koreans Vote for a New Leader After Months of Turmoil

Updated on
  • Frontrunner Moon Jae-in proposes shift on North Korea, chaebol
  • Results expected around midnight; polls close at 8 p.m.

Here's What South Koreans Will Be Voting for

South Koreans voted Tuesday in a special election to replace ousted leader Park Geun-hye, the culmination of months of discord that saw the country’s biggest street protests since the 1980s.

Polls will close at 8 p.m. local time, with exit polls out shortly afterward and a winner expected around midnight in Seoul. Turnout was 67 percent as of 4:20 p.m., the Election Commission said on its website.

Moon Jae-in.

Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Moon Jae-in, the runner-up to Park in 2012, is the favorite to become president and end nine years of conservative rule. His rivals include Ahn Cheol-soo, 55, of the centrist People’s Party, and Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, an offshoot of Park’s conservative wing.

The winner will inherit a nation riven by divisions, with younger voters pushing back against an older generation that have put right-leaning politicians in charge of South Korea for most of the time since it embraced democracy. Park’s downfall has split the conservative camp and provided an opening for Moon, who favors steps to rein in family-run conglomerates known as chaebol.

Moon would also face the task of reducing tensions over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program. He has said he’ll talk with Kim under the right conditions, and opposed the U.S.’s move to deploy a missile shield in South Korea shortly before the election. His anti-war stance risks undermining U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats of military force against Kim if he fails to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

After casting his vote on Tuesday, Moon issued a call for unity. “I myself will be the first to make such efforts by embracing other candidates and their parties for harmony,” he said. “I hope the people do what they can do until the end of the election but come back as one after the election for the nation’s unity."

Park Jong-min, 48, voted at a polling station in Seoul. “I don’t feel very happy because the country’s situation is very messy,” he said afterward. “I hope the next president implements more policies for ordinary citizens.”

South Korea’s Kospi index jumped 2.3 percent on Monday to a fresh record, with markets closed Tuesday. The nation’s equities have rallied on an improving global outlook, even as bonds and the currency have lagged on risks related to North Korea.

The next leader faces the challenge of reviving Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, which is forecast to grow at the slowest pace this year since 2012. The youth unemployment rate has doubled over the past two decades.

Read more about Moon Jae-in

The winner will take power immediately, without the normal transition period, for a single five-year term. Park was impeached in March and faces trial over allegations she received bribes from top business leaders including Samsung Group heir apparent Jay Y. Lee. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Hong, 62, is a self-described strongman referred to in local media as “Hong Trump.” He has portrayed himself as pro-business and has taken a hard line against North Korea, calling on the U.S. to bring tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

Hong Jun-Pyo

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

“I’ll block the North Korea-friendly powers from deciding our North Korea policy, labor unions from deciding economic policy, and teachers unions from ruining our education by distorting our history,” Hong said on Monday. “I’ll re-build the foundation for the free Republic of Korea that the leftists have torn down."

Ahn, a former software tycoon, called on voters to choose him while acknowledging it would be an uphill battle.

“The sea of the people’s wishes will reverse the opinion-poll results,” he said.

— With assistance by Hooyeon Kim

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