SEOUL — Moon Jae-in, a progressive candidate who favors closer ties with North Korea, looked set to become South Korea’s next president, according to exit polls released shortly after voting closed Tuesday.
The snap election was called following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye over corruption scandal. South Koreans are eager to put the turmoil of the past six months behind them and restore stability at a time when President Trump has tough words for both South and North Korea and when Kim Jong Un’s regime is issuing a steady stream of threats and missiles.
But Moon’s likely victory could open a new and potentially difficult chapter in relations with the United States as Moon wants to resume engagement with North Korea while the Trump administration is calling for pressure and punishment.
Moon, the candidate for the Democratic Party, had 41.4 percent of the vote, according to joint exit polls conducted by South Korea’s three main terrestrial broadcasters.
“I felt the people’s earnest desire for government change to create a country worthy of being called a nation,” Moon told reporters after he cast his vote with his wife, Kim Jung-sook, at a middle school in central Seoul Tuesday morning.
Conservative Hong Joon-pyo had 23.3 percent and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo was third with 21.8, according to the exit polls.
Official results are not expected until about midnight local time. The victor will become president after the National Election Commission certifies the results in a meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning. He will be sworn in before the National Assembly, without the usual two-month-long transition period.
The election had to be held within 60 days after Park, South Korea’s first female president and the daughter of military strongman president Park Chung-hee, was dismissed from office in March. She is now behind bars while on trial on 18 charges including bribery and corruption.
Park was impeached for her role in a massive corruption scandal that embroiled her presidential office, the head of the pension fund and the leaders of the country’s biggest conglomerates. Lee Jae-yong, the scion of the powerful family that controls Samsung, is also in detention and on trial for his alleged role in the scandal.
Voters were hungry for change.
“Through this election, we can truly show to the politicians that we are the ones who give them power to govern,” Kim Soo-jin, a 22-year-old university graduate who is looking for a job and who voted for Sim Sang-jung, the candidate for the Justice Party and the only woman in the race.
“I struggled between Moon and Sim but I thought Sim would be do the most to make the nation more equal,” she said.
Park Boon-soon, a 69-year-old who runs a kitchenware shop in Seoul, said she voted for Moon because of his policies toward North Korea.
“I think peace in Korea the most important matter and a war should be prevented at all cost,” she said, saying she remembered living through the Korean War. “Look how terrible people’s lives become in other countries with wars. It would be too tragic for my children and grandchildren to go though that if a war breaks out.”
After the upheaval of the last six months, expectations for the next president are high.
“The Park Geun-hye era witnessed further concentration of wealth and power and instances of government officials using public office for private gain,” said Kim Yun-cheol, professor in political science at Kyung Hee University. “The task facing the incoming president will be to solve these problems.”
It was hard to be optimistic about the next president’s prospect for success, he said. “Whether the next administration can form unified government and reflect public opinions in policies will be decisive.”
Moon has put the economy at the forefront of his campaign, promising to put together a huge stimulus package and to lessen the disparity between rich and poor.
His core policy proposals include job creation, with the specific pledge to create 810,000 public-sector positions; reducing long working hours; improving transparency in government appointments; and strengthening regulations on the huge conglomerates that dominate corporate South Korea and have been implicated in the recent corruption scandals.
Although domestic issues have dominated this campaign, foreign affairs is much higher up the agenda than usual, in large part because of Trump’s election in the United States and the stance he has taken on North and South Korea.
Moon has vowed to review the Park government’s decision to host an American missile defense system and to resume economic cooperation with North Korea, including reopening a joint factory park on the northern side of the border that Park said was funneling money to the Kim regime.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.