SEOUL, South Korea – Pro-government candidate Roh Moo-hyun won South Korea's presidential election Thursday in a vote that could affect relations with the United States and communist North Korea.
Roh has said he wants a more "equal" relationship with Washington, a key ally, and advocates dialogue with the North. Opposition candidate Lee Hoi-Chang, who was critical of the government's "sunshine" policy of engaging Pyongyang, conceded defeat.
With about 86 percent of the votes counted, Roh had 48.9 percent and Lee 46.6 percent. That lead was insurmountable, television stations said.
"Thank you my dear fellow countrymen, who have elected me as president," Roh said at his party headquarters.
"I will try to open a new era of dialogue and harmony. I will try to become a president, not just for the people who supported me, but also for the people who opposed me in the election."
Turnout among the nation's 35 million eligible voters was 70.2 percent, almost 11 percent lower than in the 1997 presidential election.
In a wintry chill, voters lined up at 13,400 polling stations throughout the country of 48 million people. The day was declared a national holiday, so some people showed up to vote in hiking clothes or ski outfits.
In the campaign, Roh and Lee espoused roughly similar positions on the economy, but disagreed on another domestic issue — Roh's proposal to move some government offices out of Seoul. Lee opposes the plan.
The vote took place amid a surge in anti-U.S. sentiment, fueled by the recent acquittals in U.S. military trials of two American soldiers whose armored vehicle hit and killed two South Korean teenage girls in June in a road accident.
Roh, 55, supports President Kim Dae-jung's policy of engaging North Korea, and believes dialogue is the best way to resolve concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
Lee, 67, says Kim's policy has failed, and prefers a tougher approach more in line with that of President Bush.
"I think it should be give-and-take in dealing with North Korea," said Kyle Kim, a 32-year-old engineer who voted for Lee. "We have given them a lot, and nothing has changed."
Many South Koreans believe Bush, who has ruled out talks with Pyongyang unless it abandons its nuclear development, is an obstacle to reconciliation with North Korea. Roh, who wants South Korea to be less dependent on Washington, had been expected to benefit from growing unhappiness with the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in the South.
"Bush is a trigger-happy man," said Kim Han-sik, a 32-year-old voter. "We need a leader who can say no when we think we should say no. Our country has been too subservient to the United States."
Roh won despite a last-minute setback when a key backer withdrew his support late Wednesday. Chung Mong-joon, the popular architect of South Korea's successful co-hosting of the soccer World Cup this year, said he was upset over a comment Roh made on the campaign trail Wednesday.
"If the United States and North Korea start a fight, we should dissuade them," Roh had said.
Chung, a former presidential candidate who dropped out of the race to support Roh, said the United States was a close South Korean ally and had no reason to start a fight with North Korea.
But local media, citing Chung officials, said the soccer chief was angry after Roh indicated he would not back Chung for the presidency in 2007. Chung had counted on Roh's backing.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of young South Koreans have taken to the streets to protest the acquittals of the U.S. soldiers for the road deaths and demand more South Korean jurisdiction over U.S. troops in their country.
The soldiers were acquitted of negligent homicide charges, but many South Koreans believed the trial was unfair. U.S. military officials apologized repeatedly for the deaths.
Kim's five-year term ends in February. Under South Korean law, he was barred from seeking re-election.
Surveys showed the election splitting South Korea along generational and regional lines.
Older voters might view Lee as a stern leader who would not give in to North Korean threats, but young voters might see him as an uncompromising hawk who could raise tension on the peninsula.
Security concerns vaulted to the forefront last week when North Korea declared it would revive a frozen nuclear plant previously suspected of being used to make weapons.
North Korea said it needed to generate electricity because the United States had reneged on commitments to provide power, but Washington said the communist government was violating several nuclear arms control agreements. U.S. officials say North Korea also told them in October that it had a second nuclear program based on uranium enrichment.