Lee Myung-bak

Lee Myung-bak
▪ 2008

born Dec. 19, 1941, Osaka, Japan

      On Dec. 19, 2007, Lee Myung-bak completed an improbable rise from the depths of poverty to become president of South Korea, winning election on his 66th birthday. The former corporate executive and mayor of Seoul secured a landslide victory with 48.6% of the vote, while his nearest rival, Chung Dong-young, managed to claim just 26.2%. Along with his record as one of South Korea's most successful businessmen, however, came a cloud of scandal that threatened to derail Lee's presidency even before it was to begin on Feb. 25, 2008.

      Lee's life story read like a rags-to-riches fairy tale. He was born in wartime Japan, the fifth of seven children. In 1946 the boat ferrying his family back to a liberated homeland capsized, and the family's life savings were lost. Lee helped his mother sell food on the street by day and went to school at night, and he later recalled always being hungry as a child. He collected trash to put himself through Korea University, Seoul, only to be thrown in jail for several months in 1964 for protesting against the normalization of relations with the country of his birth.

      Lee's meteoric rise in the business world echoed South Korea's transformation from an impoverished land into the “miracle on the Han River.” When he joined fledgling Hyundai Construction in 1965, it had fewer than 100 employees. When Lee resigned in 1992 as CEO of the company and nine affiliates, there were some 160,000 employees. Lee's aggressive style and can-do spirit earned him the nickname “the bulldozer.”

      Lee entered politics in 1992 by winning election to the National Assembly. He was reelected in 1996 but was forced to resign two years later after having been found guilty of exceeding campaign spending limits. After a one-year self-imposed exile in the U.S., he was elected mayor of Seoul in 2002. As mayor, he attracted attention with an ambitious urban-beautification project that included the restoration of a stream running through Seoul's downtown—a stream that his company had helped pave over almost 40 years earlier. Despite strong opposition from local shop owners and civic groups that questioned the $900 million price tag, the beautification of the Cheonggye stream proved a huge hit with the public after its opening in September 2005.

      The business scandal that could undo Lee's presidency centred on his involvement in an asset-management company closed by authorities in 2001 amid allegations of stock-price manipulation and embezzlement. Although Lee was cleared by prosecutors two weeks before the election, a videotape emerged just days before the vote on which Lee stated that he had established the company. By year's end the matter had been referred to an independent counsel, and Lee would be forced to give up the presidency if found guilty before his inauguration.

Peter M. Beck

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▪ president of South Korea
born Dec. 19, 1941, Osaka, Japan
 South Korean business executive and politician who was president of South Korea (Korea, South) from 2008.

      Lee was born in wartime Japan and was the fifth of seven children. In 1946 his family returned to Korea, but their boat capsized during the journey, and they landed ashore with little more than the clothes they were wearing. They settled in his father's hometown of P'ohang, and, to help support his family, Lee sold rice snacks during the day and attended school at night. He enrolled at Korea University, Seoul, in 1961, paying his tuition by working as a garbage collector. He was imprisoned in 1964 for participating in protests against the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan.

      Lee was blacklisted by the government for his student activism, which limited his job prospects with some of the larger established firms. He joined the fledgling Hyundai Construction company in 1965. At the time, it had fewer than 100 employees, and Lee advanced quickly through the executive ranks. When he resigned as CEO in 1992, the Hyundai Group had some 160,000 employees, and its products ranged from automobiles to heavy machinery to consumer electronics.

      Lee entered politics in 1992, winning election to the National Assembly as a member of the conservative New Korea Party. He was reelected in 1996, only to resign two years later after he was found guilty of violating campaign spending limits. He withdrew from politics and spent a year of self-imposed exile in the United States. He returned to South Korea and was elected mayor of Seoul in 2002. His administration focused on improving the livability of the central business district, most notably through an ambitious urban beautification project. This included the restoration of the Cheonggye stream, a downtown waterway paved over by Hyundai some four decades earlier. While business owners initially balked at the project's $900 million price tag, it proved to be a success with both Seoul natives and tourists when it opened in September 2005.

      Upon completion of his term as mayor, Lee successfully campaigned for the presidency of South Korea, winning election by a landslide on Dec. 19, 2007. A 2001 business scandal surfaced in the days leading up to the election, however, and the matter was directed to an independent counsel.

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Universalium. 2010.

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