SEOUL, South Korea — South Koreans bundled in thick mufflers and parkas braved frigid weather today to choose between the liberal son of North Korean refugees and the conservative daughter of a late dictator. For all their differences, the presidential 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 hardline 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.
"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 as he hurried to a polling station set up inside an apartment complex. Kim, who voted for Moon, said he was excited to be participating in what he called a historic moment in South Korean history.
There's 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 Pyongyang's rocket launch last week. Some also say the chill in North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
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.
More than 13,000 polling stations have been set up across the country, according to South Korea's election watchdog.
The effort to create distance with Lee has been more difficult for Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative, anti-North Korea base.
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, who wants to restore large-scale government aid.
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.