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Moon declares election win, pledges to unify divided South Korea

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Moon Jae-in declared victory in South Korea's leadership race, pledging to unify the nation after nine years of conservative rule that culminated in the country's biggest street protests since the 1980s.

[SEOUL] Moon Jae-in declared victory in South Korea's leadership race, pledging to unify the nation after nine years of conservative rule that culminated in the country's biggest street protests since the 1980s.

With 40 per cent of ballots counted in Tuesday's presidential election, Moon received 39.5 per cent of votes, leading conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who had 26.5 per cent. Centrist Ahn Cheol-soo was third with 21.2 per cent. The winner needs a plurality of votes.

"This is really a victory for the people who did their utmost to make a country for justice, unity, principles and common sense," Mr Moon said in a speech to supporters in Seoul. "I'll become the president for everyone. A president who serves even those who didn't support me."

The left-leaning Moon has long led opinion surveys in an election triggered by the ouster in March of former President Park Geun-hye, who is now in jail while on trial for corruption charges. He has pledged a softer touch with North Korea and tougher action against family-run conglomerates that dominate Asia's fourth-biggest economy.

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Mr Moon's stance on North Korea could put him at odds with US President Donald Trump, who has stressed that he could take military action to halt the isolated nation's nuclear ambitions. The son of North Korean refugees, Mr Moon criticized the early installation of a US missile shield on South Korean soil and has said he'd meet with Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances.

At home, Mr Moon faces the task of healing a nation which is still reeling from the graft probe that culminated in Park's arrest in March after months of street protests. He has pledged to add fiscal stimulus to create jobs for disaffected youth and bolster an economy forecast to expand this year at the slowest pace since 2012. 

A total of 77.2 per cent of voters cast their ballots, more than the 75.8 per cent in the 2012 presidential election, which Moon lost to Park, according to the National Election Commission.

Supporters gathered to cheer Moon as he gave his victory speech in Gwanghwamum square in downtown Seoul, where hundreds of thousands of protesters had rallied every Saturday for months to demand Park's ouster.

An exit poll earlier showed Mr Moon, representing the Democratic Party of Korea, attracted the most support from voters in their 20s to 50s, while people in their 60s and older tended to vote for Hong, whose Liberty Korea Party is an offshoot of Park's.

Mr Moon will begin his single five-year term immediately without the normal transition period because of Park's impeachment. Park is facing trial over allegations she received bribes from top business leaders including Samsung Group heir apparent Jay Y. Lee. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Voter disillusionment over the Park scandal has prompted lawmakers to consider a constitutional change to reduce the powers of the president. While Mr Moon's party currently has the most representatives in the 299-member national assembly, parliamentary rules may make it hard to pass tough reform measures.

Mr Moon has vowed to reduce the political influence of conglomerates known as chaebol in the wake of the turmoil. Optimism that corporate governance will improve under a new administration has helped to send the benchmark Kospi index of shares to a record high, and those gains are likely to be sustained, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. analysts.

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