South Koreans went to the polls on Thursday to cast their ballots in advance voting for the presidential election, the National Election Commission said. This is the first time when an early voting has been introduced for a presidential vote.
More than 3,500 polling stations have been installed across the country for the election that is scheduled for May 9. Incheon International Airport and major train stations are also included among the polling stations.
The Yonhap news agency reported that the parliamentary speaker and key officials from the major political parties were among early voters. The polling stations will close at 6 pm and reopen on Friday.
The National Election Commission expects the early voting rate to be around 15 per cent. A total of 42.2 million is eligible to vote in the election, slated for May 9. Experts say that public interest in the election is high as it is being held in less than two months after a political scandal involving ousted President Park Geun-hye.
In December, Park was impeached on accusations she colluded with a friend to collect bribes from big conglomerates. The Constitutional Court upheld the parliamentary motion, making her South Korea's first democratically elected president to be forced out of office.
Park went on trial on criminal charges of corruption on Tuesday. If convicted of receiving bribes, she could face more than 10 years in prison.
Presidential election candidates
The candidates of the 2017 presidential election are Moon Jae In, a 64-year-old human rights lawyer, Ahn Cheol Soo, a centrist and founder of the People's Party and Hong Joon Pyo, cantankerous ex-governor and former prosecutor.
Moon has been leading the latest polls by a wide margin. He supports South Korea's alliance with Washington, but he has contended that the country needs a more balanced diplomatic approach to the US and China.
"I will create a government most feared by North Korea, most trusted by the United States and most reliable for China," Moon said in a nationally televised campaign speech in April.
Moon's Democratic Party of Korea has criticised the current approach of South Korea to Pyongyang. It said that the sanctions alone will not end the North's nuclear weapons programme.
Initially, Ahn had opposed the Thaad deployment, but there has been a change in his opinion now. He said it would be "irresponsible" to alter an agreement with an ally. That has been viewed as an attempt to woo conservative voters, who support the deployment.
"We should never recognise North Korea as a nuclear power," Ahn told The Straits Times. "If the North is about to launch a nuclear attack, we should first strike the source of attack."
Meanwhile, Hong, who suffered a political body blow with Park's impeachment and have been looking for a new standard-bearer, claims to order the first executions in the country in two decades and crack down on "aristocratic unionists" whom he accuses of slowing the economy.
Referring to the US aircraft carrier sent to the region in a show of force against North Korea, Hong said: "If I am elected, the first thing I will do is to propose a summit meeting with President Trump on board the Carl Vinson."