Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York Times

SEOUL — South Koreans head to the polls on Wednesday to vote in one of the most contested presidential elections in recent memory, with several political issues — North Korea and sky-high property prices; gender inequality and a decaying labor market – voters in turmoil.

According to pre-election polls, the race is a close contest between Lee Jae-myung, of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, a former prosecutor representing the conservative opposition People Power Party.

The election comes as South Korea projects its influence around the world like never before. The tiny nation of just over 50 million people has long punched above its weight when it comes to manufacturing and technology, but more recently has added film, TV and music to its list of successful global exports. .

At home, on the other hand, voters are unhappy.

Housing prices are out of reach. Due to a demographic crisis, farms and small factories are struggling to find workers, even as legions of people fresh out of college complain about the lack of job opportunities. Discrimination against foreigners is on the rise. Young people say they can’t take a break. And the intense uncertainty, partly brought on by years of Covid restrictions, has left many worried about the future.

“There is growing anxiety about the future of the country as inequalities deepen and gender and generational conflicts intensify,” said Eom Kyeong-young, director of the Zeitgeist Institute at Seoul. Whoever becomes the next president will face a bitter and disenchanted public.

Mr. Lee is a former sweatshop employee and human rights lawyer renowned for his track record as mayor and people’s governor of Gyeonggi-do, the province that surrounds Seoul. He says South Korea needs a working-class leader who “shines in crises.”

Mr. Yoon, a former prosecutor, was instrumental in jailing two former presidents, as well as the head of Samsung, for corruption. His political stock rose after he resigned as attorney general last year and became a vocal critic of Mr Moon’s tenure.

Both candidates struggled to connect with voters and ran scandal-ridden campaigns.

New allegations continue to emerge that cast doubt on the ethical standards of the men and their families, including corruption, nepotism and sexism. “This is a contest between the less lovable, a choice of who is the lesser evil,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

They also have starkly different policy positions, particularly on North Korea, which recently launched a series of weapons tests that threatened regional security.

During his administration, Mr. Moon brokered the historic meetings between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. His signature political ambition was to build peace with North Korea through dialogue and cooperation, an agenda Mr. Lee would inherit if elected.

“The key to our policy on the Korean Peninsula is to prevent war from breaking out again and to prevent the loss of millions of lives and everything we have achieved so far,” Lee said. at a recent campaign event.

Mr Yoon favors a more divisive stance, reflecting popular opinion among older Tories. He called North Korea the country’s “main enemy” and threatened “preemptive strikes”.

Politics in South Korea has long been considered a blood sport. The country’s hard-won democracy came after decades of poverty, political unrest and successive dictatorships. All former presidents have faced corruption allegations in retirement.

The two most recent former presidents ended up in prison, including Park Geun-hye, the country’s first and only female president. Two former military-backed dictators have also been imprisoned.