By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Living on $2 bowls of rice in rows of tiny rooms, thousands of young South Koreans are voting early ahead of Wednesday's presidential election as they cram for exams that they hope will lead to a government job for life.
There are 30,000 residents of a drab neighbourhood of the South Korean capital known as Exam Village, where people preparing for tests for low-level civil service jobs have gravitated for years.
There is a growing sense of frustration among the young in a country where there are simply not enough jobs to go round, especially for graduates of less prestigious universities whose options are largely limited to the public sector.
That frustration might translate into votes for the leftist candidate, Moon Jae-in, who has promised more welfare, better education and taxes for the super-wealthy.
Moon is competing against Park Geun-hye from the ruling conservatives, who has pledged a continuation of current policies.
Opinion polls show the race is too close to call, with Park, the 60-year-old daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, relying on older voters who tend to turn out in force, while Moon's chances might depend on more fickle younger voters.
They often can't be bothered to vote but that might be different this time.
In Exam Village, or Goshichon in Korean, there were so many young people who wanted to cast early ballots last week that extra polling booths had to be brought in.
"I want to see regime change. Everything is so stuck," said Kim Sa-myeong, 27, in his tiny room in one of the many private dorms that house students in the neighbourhood.
In the past four decades, South Korea has transformed itself from one of the world's poorest countries into an industrial powerhouse where top companies like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor make telephones and cars for global markets.
Gross domestic product per capita is more than $30,000 a year, the world's 29th highest, and South Korean television dramas and pop stars are taking the world by storm.
But reality for many young South Koreans is a world away from glitzy showbiz and corporate triumph.
The 27-year old Kim moved from his rural town outside Seoul to his cubicle with a desk, chair and tiny fridge to try again to pass the civil service exam. He has failed once already.
He borrows money from his family to get by and studies until midnight. The drab walls of his room are plastered with lists of English words he's trying to learn.
"Even if I become a public servant, I don't think it will be much fun if this continues," said Kim, referring to the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, whose single mandatory five year term is coming to an end.
Kim speaks in a hushed voice, wary of disturbing fellow students immersed in books in their rooms all around.
South Korean students consistently outperform their counterparts in reading and maths. University enrolment rates are 80 percent, the highest in the world, and tuition costs are ranked the third highest among rich nations.
While graduates of top universities can aim for jobs with Samsung or Hyundai, those from lower-ranked universities set their sights on a state job, with 28.7 percent of graduates wanting to get government work.
Exam Village, the real name of which is Noryangjin, is packed with cram schools and study rooms. Students trudge along narrow alleys, backpacks full of books slung over their shoulders.
No one was willing to say they were supporting Park.
"My parents are saying that now is much more difficult than the IMF crisis," Christine Kang, 24, told Reuters after she cast her vote. The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis is known in South Korea as the IMF crisis.
Kang has been living and studying in Exam Village for a year in the hope of passing exams to become a police officer.
She said she voted for Moon and tweeted a picture of herself carrying a sign reading "12.19 Vote!" to encourage her friends.
Moon came to the neighbourhood to campaign and stood with students at a street stall to eat one of their staple $2 rice meals from a plastic container. He promised job quotas for young people and an increase in the number of civil service job opportunities.
But he's got his work cut out, if he wins.
The percentage of people between 15 and 29 who are not in employment, education or training stood at 36.8 percent, the highest level among OECD countries in 2008, according to Korea Labor Institute.
Of a total of about 300,000 people taking the civil service exams, only about 10,000 will pass.
"No matter who becomes president, the job problem isn't going to be solved quickly," said Oh Eun-a, a 25 year-old woman also hoping to pass the police exam. "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer and it's is getting worse."
"Becoming a public servant is the only dream that the have-nots can pursue," Oh said.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel)