Tens of millions of South Koreans flocked to polling stations to elect their next president Tuesday, hoping for lasting political and economic reform, as well as national unity, following months of disarray.
At 6 a.m., voters started to trickle into nearly 14,000 stations across the country, braving fine dust and rain in some regions. In Gangwon Province, victims of this week’s massive forest fire resorted to booths nearby their makeshift shelters.
Voters form a long queue at a polling station in Seongbuk, northern Seoul, to cast their ballots for South Korea's presidential election on May 9, 2017. (Yonhap)
The election posted one of the highest-ever turnouts in the history of the country’s still nascent 30-year-old democracy, at 77.2 percent. And the rate speaks for itself -- voters’ zeal for change was felt on the ground.
“I hope that the new president bridges the political divisions and fixes domestic and diplomatic woes. Most importantly, he has to create more jobs for young people,” said Lee Oh-sun, 72, who voted at in Songpa-gu, eastern Seoul.
Park Hae-soo, 67, said the acute fine dust levels could not thwart her resolve to cast her ballot because the next five years are particularly critical given North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats.
Citizens urge lawmakers to vote for an impeachment bill against embattled President Park Geun-hye during rally in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016. (Yonhap)
For her, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party was deemed the best man to be a commander in chief who can ensure robust defense and no more financial aid to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un regime, with the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial park remaining shuttered.
“I voted for Hong Joon-pyo because liberal candidates would not solve the threats from North Korea‘s nuclear program,” she told The Korea Herald. “Reviving the Kaesong industrial park is not an answer especially at a time when tensions are really high as today.”
Chung Yoo-young, 38, cast his ballot at a booth in Sanggye-dong in the north of the capital, where her pick, Ahn Cheol-soo of the center-left People’s Party, also turned up to vote.
Voters wait in line at a district polling booth in Sanggye-dong , northern Seoul, before its official opening time at 6 a.m. (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)
Despite his waning performance in recent poll results, she stood by her belief he was capable of reinvigorating the economy and bringing in jobs.
“I want a candidate who is competent enough to revive the current economy. I’m not sure if Ahn will become the next president, but I like him because he seems to be focused on the economy,” Chung said. “I just want the country to be a better place.”
For many South Koreans, the election instilled a sense of ownership and responsibility, as it was the culmination of six months of a peaceful grassroots movement that unseated former President Park Geun-hye.
After a sweeping presidential influence-peddling scandal broke out, infuriated and disillusioned citizens took to the streets. Saturday after Saturday, as many as 2.32 million gathered across the country, pushing up the accumulated tally to 17 million.
Supporters of Presidential candidate Moon Jae-in hold out their smartphones and a magazine for Moon to sign, outside the polling station in Hongeun Middle School in Seoul on Tuesday. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
On Dec. 9, the National Assembly impeached Park. On March 10, the Constitutional Court confirmed the decision to oust the president.
“I voted to make the country a better place for my children. I am sure my vote counts,” said Sim Eun-hee, 45, who cast her ballot in Yongsan, central Seoul, with her physically challenged husband and two children.
“This is the election made possible by the public. Upholding the public sentiment, I hope society becomes fairer for all, especially for the disabled, under the new government.”
The scandal and ensuing national chaos may have had a silver lining: it intrigued many youngsters previously indifferent to politics and inspired their participation, as it did for Lee Jun-myun.
“I wasn’t really interested in politics until this year because of Park’s impeachment,” said the 22-year-old university student from Nowon, northern Seoul.
“I can’t tell you who I voted for, but I want a president who is qualified to run this country and solve the current unemployment issue. I’m worried because I feel like I’m trapped in this unlucky generation where most of us struggle with our dreams.”
Fandom and anger also served as another driver for turnout.
Song Nan-young, a 34-year-old company worker, came to a polling station in Seodaemun, central Seoul, to see front-runner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea -- on course to victory as of 10 p.m. -- after casting her own vote at 6 a.m. in her hometown of Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.
“I came here taking an hour and a half ride from my home to see him in person,” she said, showing off Moon’s autograph on her mobile phone.
“I am sad that I would not be able to see him so often anymore when he goes to the presidential office tomorrow, but I am sure he will do a good job as president.”
In contrast, Kim Ki-hwa, 20, said he had to take the one and only chance of being eligible to vote for the first time, expressing hopes for a better job environment especially for students of humanities majors like himself. But perhaps a bigger catalyst was Hong’s self-professed involvement in a past sex crime involving a sexual stimulant used to breed farm pigs.
“Whoever is elected, I hope it won’t be Hong,” Kim said. “It’s my first time to cast a ballot, and my goal is to stop him from becoming our next president. It would be a disgrace for all to have someone as our leader who had conspired in a sex crime using a pig stimulant.”
This year, ballot selfies have become a social media sensation, starting from Thursday and Friday’s early voting period. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been flooded with photos of voters -- especially young voters -- taken outside polling booths with their hands marked with a ballot stamp.
This is thanks in part to the National Election Commission’s lifting of a related ban to help boost turnout.
“I took a photo of us holding hands with the stamps showing because I wanted to remember the moment. We made this election possible,” said Kong Young-hee, a 29-year-old office worker who turned up at a booth in Seongdong-gu, central Seoul, alongside the wife he married last year.
By Shin Hyon-hee, Ock Hyun-ju, Jo He-rim, Bak Se-hwan & Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com