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South Koreans vote for new president

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

Voters have been galvanized 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, with the final Gallup Korea survey before a week-long pre-election blackout giving 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 at a polling station in western Seoul.

Hong Joon-Pyo, of Park’s Liberty Korea party, who languished in third place in the 13-strong field on 16 percent, urged voters to support him, branding Moon as a “pro-Pyongyang leftist.”

Chung Tae-Wan, a 72-year-old doctor, cast his ballot at a polling station in the prosperous Seocho district of the capital. “I voted for Hong, as security (against North Korea) is the most important thing”, he told AFP.

Kim Kyung-Min, 24, said she cast her ballot in advance last week. “I was so disappointed in Park and the establishment”, she told AFP, but refused to say whom she voted for.

More than 139,000 voting stations opened at 6 am local time (2100 GMT) across the country under overcast skies, with turnout expected to hit a record high.

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 – who is accused of being soft on the North by his critics – has advocated dialogue to defuse tensions and to bring it to negotiations, and is seen to favor more independence in relations with the US, Seoul’s security guarantor with 28,500 troops in the country.

Seoul needs to “take the lead on matters in the Korean peninsula” and South Koreans should not “take the back seat”, he said in a recent media interview. (AFP)