Jae-in, human rights lawyer, elected president of South Korea

As of 1900 KST (0600 EST), around 75.0 percent of South Korean voters had cast their ballots, with one hour remaining before voting ends, the South's National Election Commission (NEC) said.

The exit poll of about 89,000 voters at 330 polling stations, jointly commissioned by three major television stations and released just after polls closed, showed Moon receiving 41.4 percent of the vote.

Arguing Hong is the "gang of former President Park and the goner of the history", KCNA said Hong sought to "extend the utterly rotten conservative rule of Park Geun-hye". Now most polls show him well in front.

Conservatives worry that a victory by Moon Jae-in might benefit North Korea and estrange South Korea and its most important ally, the United States.

Conservative Hong Joon-Pyo - who dubs Moon a "pro-Pyongyang leftist" was far behind on 23.3 percent, with centrist Ahn Cheol-Soo third on 21.8. The support rate had hovered around 40 percent, touching 38 percent in the first week of May, according to a weekly survey by Gallup Korea.

Millions of South Koreans headed to polls Tuesday to elect a new president, a culmination of a two-month race a trailing conservative equated to an ideological war as his liberal rival appeared poised to overturn a decade of conservative rule after a massive scandal toppled the previous leader.

A quarter of voters cast ballots early last week, a figure seen driven higher by the participation of younger people. Turnout is expected to be high.

The country's 19th presidential election was called months ahead of schedule because of impeached former leader Park Geun-hye's expulsion.

While campaigning, several presidential candidates said they would consider pardoning Park, but Moon has said he refuses to do so.

Following months of protests by millions and an impeachment by lawmakers, Park was removed from office and arrested in March over corruption allegations.

Voters have been galvanised by anger over the sprawling bribery and abuse-of-power scandal that brought down Park, which catalysed frustrations over jobs and slowing growth.

The victor of Tuesday's vote will also be expected to deal with escalating tensions with neighbouring North Korea, after US President Donald Trump threatened to take unilateral action against the country for recent ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

"We saw recently a slightly bad side of our government", said college student Nam Woo-hyu, 26.

Moon says he would want to be approachable and move freely among the people, even though many thought that "unrealistic".

But whoever becomes president could also dramatically alter the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula starting day one - the victor will immediately take charge. North Korea has responded defiantly with its own military drills and hostile rhetoric.

"This presidential election is not a fight between conservatives and progressives".

On a controversial comfort women deal with Japan, Sejong Institute analyst Lee Seong Hyon said of Mr Moon: "As a seasoned politician, he fully understands that Japan is a neighbour he should work with, but he won't be soft on the comfort women issue".

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

The next administration will be laden with urgent issues to "alter the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula starting day one, as the victor will immediately take charge", the CNN said. "This is the demand of the South Korean public".

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