The winning candidate will be officially sworn in as South Korea's new president after the National Election Commission ends the vote count and confirms the victor on Wednesday.
Moon Jae-In, the left-leaning former human rights leader from the Democratic Party of Korea, has been favourite to win for months, with the latest poll putting him at 38% support, followed by former tech mogul Ahn Cheol-Soo on 20%. "I hope the next president will engage in well-balanced diplomacy". The impact of China on the South Korean economy is profound and Moon is prepared to make diplomatic efforts to resolve the current misunderstanding. The Democratic Party candidate has also said he will break up the often opaque ties between big business and the government in the world's 11th largest economy, and wants to increase public sector jobs and raise taxes on the wealthy.
Other experts warn that a major upset is still possible if a significant number of supporters of Park's conservative party cast their votes for Mr Ahn instead.
If Moon emerges as the victor, "the win would be the first by a progressive candidate since December 2002, and the first switch to a progressive presidency from a conservative one since December 1997", according to a Goldman Sachs memo published Friday.
Hong Joon-pyo, the presidential candidate of the Liberty Korea Party, and his wife Lee Soon-sam cast their votes at a polling station in southern Seoul on May 9, 2017.
The day before the election, North Korean state media took a shot at the departing conservative government.
This implosion of the ruling party has left many conservative voters confused about which party and candidate to support.
"Pre-election surveys show liberal candidate Moon Jae-in comfortably leading his two main rivals â€" a centrist and a conservative.
"Moon's win could potentially result in cooling relations with the USA or even opening up conflicts", economist Ho Woei Chan said in a Monday research note for Singapore-based United Overseas Bank.
Given the low numbers for Sim and Yu, there was speculation they could drop out to back another candidate. He promised Yu would be placed in charge of his economic policies, saying on Thursday the two had almost identical programs.
In recent weeks, however, Moon has attempted to assuage Washington's concerns. It's not impressed with Moon's skepticism on THAAD, believing he might reverse approach after the election and actually continue the hardline policy of Park and Hwang.
Moon then made clear he is not opposed to THAAD but is looking for the best way to sell it to the people.
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"Moon has also advocated for South Korean leadership on issues in the Korean peninsula and to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea", Ho said. In other words, Moon simply wants to cover approval for THAAD's deployment with the fig leaf of nominal public discussion and debate. "I think his approach is kind of coalescing well with President Trump's actions". Pyongyang urged South Koreans not to vote for the conservative government again as it has been wary of Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak's way of handling issues related to the isolated country.
In addition to meetings between the presidents of the two countries, the first Sunshine Policy era saw closer economic ties.
It is important to note that the THAAD battery is being placed in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, a town 217 kilometers from Seoul.
Yet South Korea is generally regarded as one of Asia's most active democracies. What the United States administration wants to change is unclear, but it is causing anxiety among South Korean businesses, especially as the country's economy is slowing.
"And that is where the USA government, which has not yet taken sides, can play a decisive role and help Hong, for the sake of both South Korea's freedom and the US interest", Kang wrote.
Both Moon and Ahn recognize that the next administration should change all: the hereditary succession at the big businesses that distort market rules; the gaps between the full-time, stable jobs and contract jobs; the corporate culture and long working hours hostile to raising children.
The election is being watched closely by allies and neighbors at a time of high tension over North Korea's accelerating development of weapons since it conducted its fourth nuclear test in January past year.
The US is taking nothing for granted.
Shin Yul, a political science professor at Seoul's Myungji University, calls this unforeseen intrusion by the USA the "American wind".
After tacitly backing the removal of Park Geun-hye, who pursued closer relations with Beijing, the USA is making clear there is no room for wavering with its allies.
The child of refugees from North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War, Mr Moon was expelled from Kyunghee University for protesting against dictator Park Chung-hee, father of Park Geun-hye, to whom he lost the 2012 election.