Can Lee deliver the results?
Bulldozer, workaholic, practical conservative, demanding boss. South Korea’s new president is already well known for these attributes. A former jaebeol CEO, Lee Myung-bak is supposed to be a tough-minded pragmatist who demands results and will promote business in order to make the economy grow.
Lee has said many imes that he will be a “CEO-style president” who will revive Korea’s supposedly lackluster economic fortunes. This straightforward promise at a time of nervousness over the future and weariness with the ideological politics and bickering of the past liberal government, made Lee the front-runner for president from the time he announced his desire to seek the top office. Dogged by allegations ― never quite proven ― of corruption and ethical lapses from his past, his promise of better times ahead was enough to win him the job he assumed today.
“He didn’t win because he was a political conservative but because he was a candidate that promoted de-ideology,” said Im Sung-ho, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University.
Korea has changed, says Im. The society no longer emphasizes ideology. Outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun won five years ago after youngsters and former student activists flocked to his cause because they believed he could complete the transition away from the authoritarianism of the past and the regionalism of parochial politicians. In 2007, Lee offered something different: a break with traditional mainstream politics, which, in his view, are inefficient and hamper innovation.
Five years ago, Roh reached out to young people by pledging to promote Korea’s sovereignty and not kowtow to the United States. Five years later, the people were enraptured by a former chief executive of Hyundai Construction who played a key role in Korea’s economic growth; Lee said little about ideology but instead appealed to a desire to make better companies, be more competitive and find a good job. If Roh fed idealism to the youth, Lee gave young people practical hope for a better life.
Kim Jung-hoon, 28, who organized seminars and forums for college students with high-profile figures when he was at university, said he was more impressed by Lee than any other leader he encountered.
“I met many famous people and Lee certainly stood out,” said Kim, who became an eager fan when Lee was the Seoul mayor. “He had confidence, and he was brief and to the point when he spoke. Many young people in the lecture agreed with him that it was time to think more about the quality of life.”
Lee owes much of his presidential victory to the numerous projects that he championed during his four years as a high-profile mayor. He pulled down the ugly concrete highway that was built during the 1970s when the city was quickly industrializing. Then he dug a ditch to recreate the extinct stream beneath the road that disappeared in the 1960s; he ended up with the Cheonggye Stream, a nicely landscaped 6.4-kilometer (4 mile) waterway running through downtown. He created greenery around major tourist sights and opened parks. He improved the public transportation system with free bus transfers. And he made sure everyone knew it was the CEO mayor’s doing.
On top of his mayoral stint, Lee’s life story was already enticing. Born Dec. 19, 1941, in Osaka, Japan, where his parents were working, he grew up poor in southeastern Korea after World War II. According to his autobiography, Lee worked as a laborer by day and studied for university entrance examinations by night. Eventually, he majored in business administration at Korea University, earning his tuition by working as a garbage collector. When he was hired by Hyundai in 1965, he met his mentor, Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, and began his rise.
By the age of 36, Lee was leading six affiliates of Hyundai, which became the country’s largest conglomerate. As general manager of Hyundai Construction, he helped build the country’s first freeway between Seoul and Busan. He was soon CEO of the company, which became a global construction giant. His story of being born in poverty, but fueled with a determination to succeed, has mesmerized ordinary Koreans, becoming fodder for television dramas even before Lee entered politics.
But his no-time-to-waste approach faces real challenges. His plan to force high school English teachers to speak fluent English within two years provoked howls of outrage from teachers. His pro-business stance could cause a backlash with trade unions and regrouping liberals. When Lee snubbed a meeting with a major umbrella union, labor leaders said they would gear up for conflict with the new president. If his friends in the corporate world fall prey to scandal or illegality, he must be careful to appear fair or face the consequences. He says he will guarantee that the country returns to 7 percent growth by the end of his term. That’s a high goal by anyone’s standards.
“He has devoted fans. That’s for certain,” said Kim Seon-ju, 52, of Seoul. “But he also seems to have a lot of opposition. He should work hard to gather more support.”
By Lee Min-a Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]