South Korea's Moon says to push for reform and unity

Rep. Yun Ho-jung chief policymaker of Moon Jae-in's presidential election campaign speaks during a press briefing at the liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Seoul

Rep. Yun Ho-jung chief policymaker of Moon Jae-in's presidential election campaign speaks during a press briefing at the liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Seoul

Moon was the clear favorite as conservative forces worked to regroup Park's devastating scandal. KBA officials say the polls have rarely been incorrect in predicting the winners of large-constituency balloting such as presidential and Seoul mayoral elections.

He was a strong proponent of the "Sunshine Policy", an attempt to improve relations between the two Koreas from 1998 to 2008, and was chief of staff to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Mr Moon's two biggest rivals, conservative Mr Hong and centrist Mr Ahn, were expected to garner 23.3% and 21.8% respectively, according to the exit poll, which had a margin of error of 0.8 percentage points.

"I voted for the person who, when they are administering North-South relations or Korea-US or Korea-China relations, they would be able to effect at least a little change", said Mr Hae.

He also calls for the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea after withdrawing them in the 1990s.

The final Gallup Korea survey before a week-long pre-election blackout gave him 38% support, well ahead of former tech mogul Ahn Cheol-soo on 20%.

Polls will close at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT), two hours later than in 2012. They are expected to predict a victor before midnight.

"I hope today will open the door for a new Republic of Korea", Moon told jubilant party members after the release of the exit poll, in what sounded like an acceptance speech.

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The National Election Commission is expected to formally announce the victor of the snap election at around 10 am on Wednesday, after which he will be immediately sworn in as president to serve a full five-term, without any transition period.

His victory would end a near decade of conservative rule by Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter's weapons and missile programmes have risen in recent weeks, but Moon advocates dialogue and reconciliation with the North to defuse the situation and eventually lure it to negotiations.

Others were more anxious about the growing North Korean nuclear threat and fears that Seoul was losing its voice in worldwide efforts to deal with its belligerent rival.

Significantly, Moon even led in the conservative strongholds of North and South Gyeongsan provinces.

Park is jailed awaiting trial later this month on bribery, extortion and other corruption charges.

Millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest against her administration.

Many of his supporters participated in big, peaceful weekend rallies over the last few months of 2016 and early this year, demanding Park step down.

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Mr Moon lost the last election against Ms Park but he is expected to benefit from the fallout from the scandal.

The scandal surrounding former president Ms Park highlighted widening inequality and the corrupt ties between regulators and powerful companies, a relationship numerous candidates have vowed to reform.

As a former pro-democracy student activist, Mr Moon was jailed for months in the 1970s while protesting against the senior Park.

Liam McCarthy-Cotter, a specialist in East Asian politics at Nottingham Trent University, said there was a need for South Korea "to re-establish its strength both domestically and in the face of increasingly hostile posturing from North Korea".

"Things are not right to resume the so-called Sunshine Policy, as the US and China turned more hostile towards North Korea", said Koh Yu-hwan, Dongguk University professor of North Korean studies, who is serving as a foreign policy adviser to Moon.

If Moon's win is confirmed, he is expected to overhaul Seoul's policy on North Korea, looking to open talks with Pyongyang and challenge the deployment of a controversial United States missile defence system.

"We will continue to meet all our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea", State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told the Yonhap News Agency. That divide has been around since the Korean Peninsula was separated into a US -backed south and Soviet-backed north at the end of World War II, and only widened during her presidency.

"It is crucial that Trump and the next South Korean president strike up instant, positive chemistry in their first meeting to help work through any bilateral differences and together deal with the North Korean challenge".

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