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[NEW YEAR SPECIAL]How will Lee reshape South Korea?

[NEW GOVERNMENT, NEW CHALLENGES]A builder and a businessman with a background as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction in its glory years, Lee likes to redraw his world.

Jan 01,2008
Fast-forward to the year to 2010: A Mr. Kim picks up his morning paper and sees a banner headline proclaiming that construction of the massive cross-peninsula canal is underway. Excavators are digging their way into Mount Joryong to create the 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) tunnel that will eventually connect the Han River in Seoul to the Donggang River in Gangwon Province on the east coast.
The article recounts the pledge President Lee Myung-bak made three years earlier to carve a giant waterway across the Korean Peninsula. The plan seemed impossible, bizarre and environmentally hazardous to his opposition, but now it is coming to life. The economy is said to be booming where the Han and the Nakdong rivers come together, leading finally to a giant inland dock near Busan.
That is the kind of article President-elect Lee hopes to see in a few years time. A builder and a businessman with a background as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction in its glory years, Lee likes to redraw his world.
As mayor of Seoul, he changed the look of the city dramatically with parks and the reconstruction of the Cheonggye Stream.
As president, he wants to put his physical stamp on the office with his vision of a grand canal. Some may see it as foolhardy, but it would be risky to bet against Lee, the “Bulldozer,” getting his canal built.
“I knew Lee Myung-bak would pick up my idea when I suggested that we build a giant canal,” said Yu Woo-ik, the head of the Global Strategy Institute, a think-tank that does policy studies for Lee.
Yu, who is also a Seoul National University geography professor, still remembers the day he brought up the idea for the “Great Waterway.”
It was 10 years ago, and having returned from the University of Kiel in Germany where he witnessed how canals worked successfully in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Yu thought Lee would love the idea of “remodeling the peninsula.”
Yu’s initial idea was that the nation needed a canal to link the southern cities of Busan and Mokpo from east to west, to spur growth in the regional economy. Starting with the canal, he planned to develop the area into an international center for investment, education and recreation.
When Lee got interested, the idea grew into a project to connect the entire 540-kilometer distance from Seoul to Busan, crossing through cities such as Daegu and Chungju and transforming them into trade ports.
They would just need 40 more kilometers of artificial canal to connect the existing streams and rivers that are scattered across the country and that already add up to about 500 kilometers of waterways. The additional dams and the artificial canal, which will be 100 to 300 meters wide and at least six meters deep, will help control floods.
Lee’s canal research team expects that the canal will be an answer to traffic congestion, while reducing cargo rates by at least 50 percent over highway transport. About 26 billion won ($28 million) would be needed to build every kilometer of the canal ― one-fourth the cost of railways.
But their plans confronted a major obstacle when Lee became an official presidential candidate and his opponents ridiculed the canal idea.
In a television debate, Lee Hoi-chang called the canal “anachronistic,” saying that Lee Myung-bak is “still trying to earn money by digging up dirt.”
“Why do we need boats that will take 72 hours to go from Busan to Seoul when we already have bullet trains that will take you to Busan in 2 and a half hours?” the independent conservative candidate asked.
“It troubled him [Lee Myung-bak] that the canal was turning into a target in a political fight,” Yu said of the campaign.
But countering attacks that said Lee’s ability to govern was limited to using concrete, Yu dreamed up a catchphrase: “The heart is where the waterway opens,” which he thought would help persuade the public that the canal project was something more than just a work of engineering.
Lee Myung-bak’s camp came up with its own responses.
In a report by researcher Kim Yeong-wu, it said the Gyeongbu Expressway (a project Lee headed while at Hyundai) helped Korea to become the world’s 12th-largest economy during the days when it did not have many cars. By 2020, 40 percent of bulk cargo, including cement, oil and fertilizer will move by canal, the Lee campaign report said. The canal will also become a tourism attraction, it said.
“People tend to disapprove of something when they cannot see it,” Yu said. “When Lee first said he wanted to restore the Cheonggye Stream in the middle of Seoul, a lot of people opposed it. Now everyone likes it.”
Lee gained experience in tackling fierce opposition from the Cheonggye Stream plan. Vendors who earned their living from marketplaces on the Cheonggye road protested Lee’s idea. But he met with vendors repeatedly over 14 months until he convinced them, he recounted in his autobiography.
That determination to see a project through is familiar from the Lee story.
In his 10th year working for Hyundai, the group met its biggest crisis when a foreign counterpart cancelled a contract to purchase 3,000 ships that Hyundai Shipbuilding had already built. Lee persuaded Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung to establish a marine company of its own to use the ships. That company is now Hyundai Merchant Marine.
Kim Yeon-sun, a housewife in her 50s, grew up watching historical television dramas depicting the turbulent modern history of Korea. Lee’s real-life tale was a popular subject for television producers describing the 1970s and 1980s. In a 1989 KBS drama called “Ambitious Times,” Lee was portrayed as a dauntless hero and symbol of Korea’s rise: an ordinary salary man who became a corporate giant before he was 40.
“He was a hero to people my age,” said Kim, who was gossiping with her neighbor about Lee’s canal pledge at a shopping center. “He was in charge of the Gyeongbu Expressway and he restored the Cheonggye Stream. So when I heard that he was going to try and build that canal, I thought, why not,” she said. “People at least want to believe that more jobs will be available once the canal project starts.”
When Lee entered the Hyundai Group, his first job was in Thailand, where he built a highway connecting Pattani and Narathiwat. One night, a group of Korean laborers turned into a violent mob trying to rob a Hyundai office, but Lee protected it physically. Chairman Chung was impressed and he eventually became Lee’s mentor,
From there, the Lee legend continued to grow. At the age of 29, he became the executive manager of Hyundai Engineering and Construction. Seven years later, he was president of the company. Three years after that he was the CEO and he was leading five more Hyundai affiliates.
Lee drove himself and his employees hard. He would not tolerate slacking off. “Did you come here to work or to take a stroll?” he would chide workers. “Why did you come here empty-handed?” Some still shudder when they recall the dressing down.
Park Jae-myun, a former Hyundai Engineering and Construction president and a contemporary of Lee’s in the group said he remembered his friend plowing ahead, even making shocking decisions when he promoted some employees at high speed.
“He did not care about formal procedures. He skipped some steps if he thought someone was the right person for the job,” Park told the JoongAng Sunday. When Lee was in charge of building the Chosun Hotel, he recruited a young worker from the construction supplies department to work directly under him, Park explained. He was just the guy Lee wanted.
But his temper also sometimes got him in trouble.
Lee once found an “expert” to help him collect money from a Manila construction project. But the person turned out to have no experience in the construction field. He was also only interested in leaving Hyundai for another foreign firm as soon as he arrived. Hearing the story, Lee fell into a rage.
“After that, he was more careful about personnel matters,” Park recalled. “But he never made the same mistake twice.”
Given his history and his promises, Korea can expect a lot of take-charge behavior from Lee. He is disdainful of what he calls “Yeouido politics,” the give and take of horse trading in the National Assembly. After he won the GNP primary last August, a number of lawmakers, especially those who are close to Lee’s primary rival Park Geun-hye, were noticeably upset because Lee did not court their favor.
Indeed, in Lee’s platform there was little mention of politics. His promises are all about creating more ― more jobs, more building, faster growth and an “era of advancement” symbolized by the canal.
Former Vice Finance Minister Kang Man-soo, who served as the head of the Seoul Development Institute when Lee Myung-bak was the mayor of Seoul, said he believes Lee is the right leader to create an environment that will compel companies to invest and grow.
Kang, who has been appointed to lead the economy unit in Lee’s transition team, said Lee’s policies have the power to transform. “This administration is for growth and for creating the investment-friendly country we want,” he said.


By Lee Min-a Staff Reporter [mina@joongang.co.kr]


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