By HYUNG-JIN KIM and SAM KIM, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans voting for president Wednesday were almost evenly divided between the conservative daughter of a late dictator and the liberal son of North Korean refugees, according to surveys released after the polls closed.
One exit poll and one phone survey found that ruling party candidate Park Geun-Hye had a slight lead over the opposition's nominee, Moon Jae-in. Another survey, however, gave Moon a slight edge.
Huge crowds braved frigid weather to choose a leader to replace the unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak. South Korea limits presidents to a single five-year term.
Park, aiming to become the country's first woman president, attempted to distance herself from Lee's policies. She and Moon agreed that South Korea needs greater engagement with rival North Korea, despite a widely criticized rocket launch last week.
Final turnout was tentatively estimated at nearly 76 percent, the highest in 15 years, according to election watchdog officials.
Analysts said higher turnout may slightly favor Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Park's conservative base is comprised mainly of older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her dictator father, Park Chung-hee.
An exit poll jointly sponsored by TV stations KBS, MBC and SBS showed Park won 50.1 percent of the vote, compared to Moon's 48.9 percent. The stations said, however, that the gap was within the plus-or-minus-0.8 percent margin of error, and official results released could be different.
A telephone survey by YTN television network said Moon got between 49.7 and 53.3 percent, while Park received between 46.1 and 49.9 percent.
Economic worries may be the focus of many voters, but North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with last week's rocket launch, which put a satellite into orbit but was condemned by the United Nations and others as a cover for testing long-range missile technology.
Part of voters' dissatisfaction with Lee stems from the hard line he has taken on North Korea. Many voters blame inter-Korean tension for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
South Koreans also express deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Lee in corruption scandals.
"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, who voted at a polling station inside an apartment complex.
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 was chief of staff to late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
"Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy," 50-year-old housewife Lee Hye-Young said at a polling station at a Seoul elementary school. "Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea."
Moon was a close friend and aide of late President Roh, who championed the so-called "sunshine policy" of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
Moon wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Park has also held out the possibility of such a meeting, but only if it's "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern."
Whoever wins and moves into the presidential Blue House in February will set the initial tone for new North Korea policy not just in Seoul but in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. All those governments have recently undergone an election, a change of leadership or both.
A Moon election could lead to friction with Washington if new engagement with Pyongyang comes without any of the reciprocal nuclear disarmament progress that Washington demands from the North.