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Originally published December 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 20, 2007 at 7:52 AM

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New South Korean president — the right man at the right time

Lee Myung-bak, the winner of South Korea's presidential election on Wednesday, built his campaign around his own inspiring narrative of...

The Washington Post

Lee Myung-bak

The former construction boss was elected president of South Korea on Wednesday.

Born: Dec. 19, 1941, to a poor rural family

Education: Attended Korea University; served brief prison stint for work as a student activist

Experience: CEO of Hyundai Construction, where he earned the nickname "The Bulldozer"; worked for the company for 27 years

Political experience: Elected to the National Assembly in 1992; took office as mayor of Seoul in 2002

The Washington Post

Lee Myung-bak, the winner of South Korea's presidential election on Wednesday, built his campaign around his own inspiring narrative of bootstrap prosperity.

His is a rags-to-riches story with such box-office appeal that it has already been depicted in two dramas on South Korean television.

Lee's life story resonates because this is a rags-to-riches nation, destitute at the end of the Korean War but now the world's 13th-largest economy.

The principal premise of Lee's campaign was that he alone has the right stuff to make South Korea even richer — and fast.

That's precisely what South Korean voters wanted to hear — about 60 percent see jobs and the economy as top priorities.

Unlike in previous elections, North Korea has become a nonissue.

Analysts say Lee's popularity is helped by voter fatigue with almost 10 years of rule by Presidents Kim Dae-jung and now Roh Moo-hyun, both of whom are longtime veterans of the country's dissident movement.

Under Roh's tutelage, economic growth has slowed to 5 percent, too slow for the economic aspirations of many South Koreans. Supporters are looking to Lee's business savvy to pep it up.

But not everything in Lee's personal narrative is inspiring. It includes a number of ethical hiccups, one of which surfaced in a video clip Sunday.

The clip, from 2000, shows Lee delivering a speech in which he states that he founded a now much-investigated company that defrauded investors. Previously, he had denied any connection to the company.

The clip prompted the National Assembly (with Lee's approval) on Monday to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate Lee.

The investigation must report before Lee is sworn in Feb. 25. The South Korean constitution protects a sitting president from prosecution for crimes other than treason. But it is unclear whether Lee would be immune to an indictment issued while he was president-elect.

While insisting he has done nothing wrong and that the taped comments were taken out of context, Lee said this week that if he were found at fault in the investigation, he would give up the presidency.

But analysts and diplomats here, noting that the president in South Korea possesses extraordinary legal and political power, said there is a high likelihood that state investigators would clear Lee.

Yet Lee's political momentum has not been significantly slowed, in the view of many political analysts.

"Corruption combined with material prosperity is acceptable at this moment," said Kim Ki-jung, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. "We can call the current mood the 'Korean jackpot dream.' "

As voters here know — from the campaign, from the television dramas and from the candidate's self-laudatory autobiography, "This Is No Myth" — Lee has lived the jackpot dream.

But he did not win great wealth easily. In a way that South Koreans find wonderfully exciting, he hustled and sweated for it.

Neither of his parents graduated from grade school. He was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1941, at a time when Koreans were colonial subjects of imperial Japan. When liberation came in 1945, Lee's family came back to Korea, but the ship carrying home all their worldly goods sank.

The fifth of seven children, Lee, who turned 66 on election day, grew up poor but smart. He helped his mother in a vegetable market while earning summa cum laude grades in high school. He put himself through college by working as a garbage man. He served four months in prison for leading student demonstrations against the then-dictatorial government but soon found a corporate ladder to climb.

He first gained prominence as head of Hyundai's construction unit, which symbolized South Korea's meteoric economic rise in the 1960-70s.

It was during his three decades with the Hyundai Group that Lee earned the nickname "Bulldozer" for his drive to push through challenges. In one instance, he completely took apart a bulldozer to study its mechanism and figure out why it kept breaking down.

When he started at Hyundai in 1965, it had 90 employees; when he left as chairman after 27 years, it had more than 160,000, according to South Korean newspapers.

Lee went into politics as a multimillionaire in the early 1990s, serving as a legislator from Seoul. He was later stripped of the seat due to a violation of election law. He had spent too much money to win re-election.

After a year in Washington, where he was a visiting scholar at George Washington University, he returned to Seoul and was elected mayor in 2002. As Seoul's mayor, he undertook beautification projects in the city that earned him environmental credibility and were viewed as redemption for earlier eyesores he built with Hyundai in the country's haste to develop.

In an October interview with The Washington Post, Lee said that as president he would condition assistance to North Korea on political and economic reform, in contrast to what Lee's camp depicts as Roh's no-conditions approach.

Western diplomats here say that despite Lee's rhetoric, he would probably bring no substantial change in South Korea's policy toward the North. They expect him to strengthen ties with the United States, which have chilled somewhat under Roh.

Washington Post special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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