South Koreans are voting in a closely contested presidential election, which pits the daughter of a former military ruler against a former human rights lawyer.
Despite frigid winter weather, initial turnout was strong as polls opened Wednesday. Voting ends at 6 pm local time and results are expected later in the day.
Opinion surveys released last week showed Park Geun-hye of the conservative ruling New Frontier Party holding a slight lead over her liberal rival, Moon Jae-in of the center-left main opposition Democratic United Party.
Park, a five-term lawmaker and the daughter of the late South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, told reporters she was optimistic as she cast her vote in the capital, Seoul.
“Although the weather is cold, I hope everyone participates in voting and opens the new era that people have been waiting for. I will await your decision with a humble mind. I believe the wise South Korean people will lead the way to the Republic of Korea's new era.”
Moon, who was once jailed for protesting against the government of Park's father, cast his vote in the southeastern port city of Busan.
“I have tried my best. I have done all I could and everything is at God's disposal. The only way for our citizens to change the world is to vote.”
Both candidates have promised to fix the widening income gap that has expanded under President Lee Myung-bak, who is stepping down at the end of his five-year term.
The 60-year-old Park has pledged dialogue with North Korea, but has taken a tougher stance on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. Moon would go a step further, resuming aid without preconditions to the impoverished country.
North Korean defector Choi Young-hee, who escaped from Pyongyang in 2004, is casting ballots in her second presidential election in the South. She said she is disappointed in the hard-line stance President Lee's government has taken toward the North.
“Our earnest wish is unification. I have left my family in the North, survived a life-or-death crisis, and I cannot write a letter to them or see them. When unification is achieved I hope that we get to meet our family and live a happy life. I believe the next president will make our earnest wish a reality.”
Moon is a former chief of staff to Mr. Lee's predecessor, late President Roh Moo-hyun, who advocated the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of better relations with the North.
Park's father, who ruled the country for 18 years, is both admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his suppression of dissent. He was assassinated in 1979.
Many observers say at least 70 percent of South Korea's 40 million eligible voters will need to turn out in order to deliver a victory for Moon. The 59-year-old has promised to perform global pop sensation Psy's “Gangnan Style” horse dance if turnout exceeds 77 percent.