(ATTN: RECASTS paras 2-4 with updated info; CORRECTS figure in 10th para)
SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea kicked off six days of overseas elections for the April parliamentary polls Wednesday, with only about half the eligible voters being allowed to cast ballots due to the new coronavirus.
About 86,000 eligible voters in 66 countries and territories were to cast their absentee ballots for the April 15 elections until Monday, according to the National Election Commission (NEC) and Seoul's foreign ministry.
The number of voters marks a significant drop from the original count of 172,000 people as 86 South Korean diplomatic missions in 51 countries, including the United States and Italy, suspended the overseas voting process amid border closures and lockdowns in the host countries over virus fears.
The government does not rule out the possibility of overseas diplomatic missions counting the votes cast there, instead of sending the ballot boxes back to Korea for counting, if they cannot find a way to send them to Korea by air mail in time due to the suspension of flight operations.
Overseas voting has started in diplomatic missions in Asia and Australia.
Officials at the overseas diplomatic missions have prepared hand sanitizers and plastic gloves, and set up thermal imaging cameras at polling stations to prevent the risk of infection.
"It was regrettable that I could not vote in the presidential elections (in May 2017), as I missed the registration period for overseas voting. I am so happy that I exercised my voting right," Kim Yi-jong, the first voter to cast his ballots in Sydney, said.
In Japan, polling stations have been set up in 10 cities and areas, including Tokyo and Osaka.
As Japan has not imposed mobility restrictions, the voting has gone smoothly so far.
Voting stations also opened at the embassy in Beijing and diplomatic missions in seven Chinese cities and Hong Kong.
The election watchdog did not establish a polling station in the consulate in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged in late December.
"Amid strict quarantine measures, including mobility restrictions, it is very difficult for voters outside Beijing to travel for voting," said an election official at the embassy in Beijing.
Some overseas Koreans have expressed regret over the watchdog's decision, saying the government has not made enough effort to protect voting rights. They said they should be allowed to vote via mail.
Some Koreans living in Germany have kicked off an online campaign calling for the right to vote, saying that except for Bavaria, 15 other federal states have not restricted people's movement.
Around 50 Korean residents in Germany and a group of progressive lawyers said they plan to file a complaint with South Korea's constitutional court over the NEC's decision. They will also seek a court injunction against it.
Moon's post-corona presidency laden with tough tasks
S. Korea shifts toward new normal of everyday quarantine but wary of 'blind spots'
(News Focus) Ruling party's landslide election win to give boost to President Moon's reform drive
Landslide victory likely to strengthen Moon's foreign policy hand
Election candidates run eye-catching campaigns amid coronavirus pandemic