UK & World News

  • 19 December 2012, 8:15

South Koreans Vote For A New President

South Koreans are heading to the polls today to vote for a new president in what has become a very closely fought contest.

Voters will choose between the centre-right candidate for the ruling party, Park Geun-Hye and her centre-left rival Moon Jae-In.

If Ms Park, 60, wins she will become the first female president of a nation which is still heavily dominated by men.

A victory for her will, analysts believe, shatter a national 'glass ceiling' and be seen as a massive step forward for women's rights.

She is the daughter of General Park Chung-Hee, the former South Korean dictator whose autocratic rule over the country lasted for 18 years before he was assassinated by his own spy chief in 1979.

Despite his dictatorship, he is widely credited for pulling South Korea out of poverty and turning it into the economic and technological success that it is today.

Mr Moon is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for his opposition to Park's father's rule.  He is the son of North Korean refugees who fled to the south during the Korean War.

Whoever wins the election will be faced with a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and rising welfare costs.

On North Korea, both candidates have a desire for further engagement though Ms Park's approach is more cautious. Mr Moon has promised to resume aid to the country without preconditions.

A British diplomat in Seoul described to Sky News the difference between the two approaches on North Korea as: "Stick then large carrot from Park; large carrot then small stick from Moon."

Relations between the North and the South are tense. The two are still technically at war. The border between the two - the 38th parallel - is the most fortified and heavily mined border in the world.

The relationship worsened with the shooting by North Korea of a tourist from the South in 2008, the sinking of a South Korean warship; an incident which North Korea says it had nothing to do with and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010.

Although North Korea will be a pressing issue for whoever wins, it has not played heavily in the campaigning despite the successful launch of a three-stage rocket by the North last week.

"It has been very much side-lined," Brendan Howe, a professor of International Relations based in Seoul, told Sky News.

"Both sides want engagement but neither side is putting it at the forefront of their campaign. It has not been a massive issue in the election." he said.

An equally pressing issue is the widening gap between rich and poor in South Korea and the dominance of family-owned conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai.

Wooing the crucial centralist voters has resulted in significant overlap between the two candidates policies.

They have both talked about 'economic democratisation' - reducing the social disparities that have come with rapid economic growth.

The new president will be one of a number of new leaders in the region. Japan has recently voted in right-wing candidate Shinzo Abe and China's new communist leadership, with their opaque direction, will take office in March.

The South Korean polls will close tonight at 0900 GMT. The winner will be announced by 1300 GMT.