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South Koreans take to the polls

On Wednesday South Korea will elect a new president. Recent polls indicate conservative Park Geun-hye may beat out challenger Moon Jae-in. Chilly weather is likely to influence voter turnout. 

By Jack KimReuters / December 18, 2012

An elderly woman is assisted in casting her ballot in the presidential election at a polling station in Nonsan, about 190 km (118 miles) south of Seoul. More than 40 million people are eligible to vote in the presidential election of the country on Wednesday.

REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

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SEOUL

South Koreans started voting for a new president on Wednesday in a battle between the daughter of a former military ruler and a man her father jailed for political activism, set against the backdrop of a hostile North Korea and a slowing economy.

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Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye had a narrow lead in polls published last week, the last allowed under election rules. If she wins, she would be the first woman leader of the country, which is still largely run by men in dark suits.

The 60-year-old daughter of Park Chung-hee has pledged dialogue with isolated, impoverished North Korea, whose rocket launch last week reinforced fears it is developing a long-range missile, while promising a tough position on its nuclear and missile programmes.

Her left-of-centre challenger, Moon Jae-in, is a former human rights lawyer who has promised unconditional aid for North Korea and to reintroduce an engagement policy that ushered in closer ties between the Cold War rivals.

Those ties started unravelling with the shooting by North Korea of a tourist from the South in 2008, and deteriorated with the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, which the North denies, and the shelling of a South Korean island the same year.

Freezing temperatures 

More than 40 million people are eligible to vote.

The polls opened at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT) and close at 6 p.m. (0900 GMT), when the three network television stations will announce the result of a jointly conducted exit poll.

One hour into voting, more than 1.1 million had braved freezing temperatures to cast ballots, a slightly higher turnout at that point than five years ago when only 60 percent voted.

The cold weather -- minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital Seoul early Wednesday and forecast to remain below freezing throughout the day -- was likely to have an impact on turnout, which had been expected to be high.

Most analysts forecast a tight race between the two front-runners, who were separated by as little as 0.5 percentage points in some polls, with Moon making late gains on Park.

While Park's bid to become president has stirred debate and divisions about her father's rule, and the prospect of a nuclear armed North Korea also hangs over the country, the main issues in the election has been the economy.

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