Lee Myung-bak (1941- ) was a South Korean business executive and politician who was president of South Korea from 2008 to 2013. Born in Japan and raised in poverty before making millions as a businessman, some have said his life story mirrors that of South Korea. Lee was Hyundai's youngest-ever chief executive and made a name for himself as politician when he was the mayor Seoul. “I will become a president who rebuilds the Republic of Korea and helps the people regain their lost smiles,” he said before he was elected. But he was embroiled in scandals and controversy even before he took office and ended up in prison

According to the BBC: “Shortly before taking office as president, he was investigated in connection with a stock market fraud, but was subsequently cleared of all charges. As president-elect for the conservative Grand National Party, he pledged to make South Korea the world's seventh largest economy — it currently stands at 13 — and to achieve 7 percent annual growth. The married father-of-three vowed to create thousands of new jobs, and said he would spend about 14 billion won on improving the transport infrastructure and attracting foreign investment. He has promised closer ties with the U.S. and a tougher line on North Korea, arguing that economic aid should be tied to Pyongyang's willingness to give up its nuclear weapons programme. However, he has also said he is in favour of setting up a 37.5bn won investment fund for North Korea if it abandons the programme. Mr Lee has a declared personal fortune of 35bn won (£18m; US$37m). [Source: BBC, February 25, 2008]

According to Reuters: Lee “attended Korea University; served a brief prison stint for his work as a student activist and landed a job at Hyundai Construction. He became its CEO when he was 36 and later led several parts of the Hyundai Group. His life story became part a popular local TV drama about the country's business heroes. He turned to politics when he was in his 50s and was elected to the National Assembly for the first time in 1992. He took office as mayor of Seoul in July 2002. Built several major projects, including a river park in the centre of the city after tearing down an elevated highway. As president, Lee says he would restore the market economy, make it easier for overseas businesses to invest in South Korea and curb unlawful labour protests. [Source: Reuters, Dec 17, 2007]

Lee Myung-bak’s Early Life

The fifth of seven children, Lee Myung-bak was born on December 19, 1941 in Osaka, Japan, during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula. His parents had emigrated to Japan in 1929.Lee's father, Lee Chung-u, was employed as a farmhand on a cattle ranch in Japan. His mother, Chae Taewon, was a housewife. Lee had three brothers and three sisters. A brother and sister were killed during the Korean War. [Source: BBC, February 25, 2008; Britannica.com, Wikipedia]

Lee’s parents returned to Korea shortly after the end of World War II. The boat that carried his family to Korea in 1946 capsized and they landed ashore with little more than the clothes on their backs. Lee's sister, Lee Ki-sun, said they smuggled themselves into the country in order to avoid having their property of confiscated. Their ship wrecked off the coast of Tsushima island and they lost everything they owned and barely survived.

Lee’s family settled in his father’s hometown of Pohang. To help support his family, Lee sold rice snacks during the day and attended school at night. His mother earned money as a street-food vendor. Lee attended night school at Dongji Commercial High School in Pohang and received a scholarship.

In 1961, a year after graduating from high school, Lee began attending Korea University in Seoul. He paid his tuition and living expenses working as a labourer and a garbage collector during the day and studying at night. In 1964, during his third year in college, Lee was elected president of the student council.

Lee led student protests against the authoritarian government, and received a police caution in 1962. He was imprisoned in 1964 for participating in protests against President Park Chung-hee and the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan. He was charged with plotting insurrection and was sentenced to five years' probation and three years' imprisonment by the Supreme Court of South Korea. He served a little under three months of his sentence at the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul. In his autobiography, Lee wrote that he was discharged from Korea's mandatory military service due to a diagnosis of acute bronchiectasis while at the Nonsan Training Facility.

Lee Myung-bak’s Business Career

Lee Myung-bak joined the relatively young Hyundai Construction company in 1965. At the time, it had fewer than 100 employees. Lee was blacklisted by the government for his student activism, which prevented him from getting a job with larger established firms. Lee advanced quickly through the executive ranks and became Hyundai's youngest-ever chief executive. 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. While at Hyundai, he earned the nickname "the bulldozer" for his ability to drive through major projects. [Source: BBC, February 25, 2008; Britannica.com]

Lee started work at Hyundai Construction in 1965 and the helped the company win Korea's first-ever overseas construction project, a US$5.2 million contract to build the Pattani-Narathiwat Highway in Thailand and China. Shortly after he was hired by the company, Lee was sent to Thailand to participate in the project, which was successfully completed in March 1968. Lee returned to Korea and was subsequently given charge of Hyundai's heavy machinery plant in Seoul, where he once completely dismantled a malfunctioning bulldozer to study its mechanics and figure out how to repair it, adding more credibility ro his bulldozer nickname. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lee led six affiliates of Hyundai, which grew into the country's largest conglomerate during his tenure. He became a company director at the age of 29 – only five years after he joined the company – and CEO at age 35. In 1988, he was named chairman of Hyundai Construction at the age of 47. After the successful completion of the Pattani-Narathiwat Highway, Korea's construction industry began to focusing its attention abroad, first in countries such as Vietnam, then in the Middle East. Among Hyundai’s major projects there were the Arab Shipbuilding & Repair Yard, the Diplomatic Hotel in Bahrain, and the Jubail Industrial Harbor Projects in Saudi Arabia. At that time, Hyundai construction company had orders exceeded US$10 billion. Lee left Hyundai after a 27-year career there.

Lee Myung-bak’s Early Political Career

Lee entered politics in 1992, winning election to the National Assembly as a member of the conservative New Korea Party. Upon his election, he stated that he ran for the office because "after watching Mikhail Gorbachev change the world climate, I wanted to see if there was anything I could do." In 1995, he ran for the city of Seoul's mayoral election, but lost to former prime minister Chung Won-sik during the primary of the Democratic Liberal Party. Source: Wikipedia, Britannica.com]

In 1996, Lee was reelected as a member of the Korean National Assembly, representing Jongno-gu in Seoul. At the election, one of his opponents was another future president, Roh Moo-hyun, who was ranked third place.

In 1998, Lee resigned his National Assembly seat after being found guilty of violating campaign spending limits. His former secretary Kim Yoo-chan disclosed that Lee had spent excessively in his election campaign. After receiving US$18,000 from Lee, Kim wrote a letter reversing his disclosure and fled the country. Lee was fined US$6.5 million for breaking election law and forcing Kim to flee. In the by-election held after his resignation, Roh Moo-hyun was elected as his successor. Lee withdrew from politics and spent a year of self-imposed exile in the United States.

Lee Myung-bak: The Green Mayor of Seoul

Lee Myung-bak was elected mayor of Seoul in 2002 and served in that position until 2006. According to Britannica.com: 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 Ch’onggye (Cheonggye) Stream, a downtown waterway paved over by Hyundai some four decades earlier. While business owners initially balked at the project’s US$900 million price tag, it proved to be a success with both Seoul natives and tourists when it opened in September 2005. [Source: Britannica.com]

Lee also presided over the creation of Seoul Forest, the opening of Seoul Forest Park, the construction of a grassy field in front of Seoul City Hall, and the addition of rapid transit buses to the city's transportation system. Lee worked to transform the area around Seoul City Hall from a concrete traffic circle to a lawn where people could gather. The 2002 FIFA World Cup showed how the area could be used as a cultural space, which came to be known as Seoul Plaza. [Source: Wikipedia]

Time magazine called Lee a "hero of the environment": “His opponents insisted that the plan would cause traffic chaos and cost billions, but the voters elected Lee. Three years later, Cheonggyecheon was reborn, an environmentally friendly civic jewel that has changed the face of Seoul. More quietly, Lee also revamped the city's transportation system, adding clean rapid-transit buses. But his lasting accomplishment was in changing the Asian political dynamic, showing that environmentalism can go hand in hand with development.” [Source: Bryan Walsh, Time, October 17, 2007]

In 2005. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Seoul Forest, a US$223 million "ecological park," opened in June with a stock of deer and mandarin ducks. But by far his most visible project has been a US$350 million enterprise to uncover a six-kilometer, or 3.7-mile, stretch of the Cheonggye stream, which once ran through the heart of Seoul but disappeared from public memory a generation ago. The fact that this was masterminded by Lee, 63, is perhaps the most unusual thing about it. Once known as "the Bulldozer," Lee built national fame as the hard-driving chief executive of Hyundai Construction & Engineering, South Korea's best-known builder and icon of its breakneck industrialization.It was Hyundai that, in the 1960s and '70s, helped put a concrete cover over the Cheonggye stream and built an elevated highway above it. The stream turned into an underground sewer, although the highway gave the city a badly needed traffic route. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, July 25, 2005]

“Upon taking office, and with the same speed and optimism that he once employed in building dams and factories, highways and railroads, Lee undid his former company's legacy in Seoul. He demolished the elevated highway — a crumbling hazard and urban eyesore after decades in service — and cleaned out the stream. He built 21 artfully designed bridges over the waterway. "When I was in business, South Korea was an underdeveloped country that raced to become rich, and I was at the forefront of it," the mayor said in an interview at his City Hall office on a recent sultry afternoon. "As a mayor in the 21st century, I saw it my responsibility to make Seoul a green city, to make it a world-class metropolis."

“Gritty, blunt and ambitious, Lee is, in a way, a reflection of the modern history of Seoul. "I get jobs done," said Lee, who is quick to smile. "That's why I am criticized a lot, and praised a lot. I am a CEO mayor. I take risks." Now, as top administrator of a city that is home to more than one-fifth of the country's population of 48 million, Lee does not shy away from confronting national leaders. He calls President Roh Moo Hyun's government "amateurs who don't have the capacity and experience needed to run a country."

Lee Myung-bak Becomes President

Lee Myung-bak ran for the president of South Korea as leader of the Grand National party and won by a landslide in December 2007. Lee took 48.7 percent of the vote. His main rival the Liberal Chung Dong-young was a distant second with 26.2 percent. It was the biggest margin of victory in any South Korean presidential election, where the candidate with the most votes wins; there are no run-offs. Turnout was a record low 63 percent.

Burt Herman of Associated Press wrote: “A former Hyundai CEO known as "The Bulldozer" for his determination to get things done rolled over all opposition and financial fraud allegations to win South Korea's presidency, ending a decade of liberal rule. Lee, who turned 66 on election day, earned the landslide victory on a wave of discontent with incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, whom many believe bungled the economy and dragged down the country's rapid growth. South Koreans apparently wanted change so badly that they were willing to overlook accusations of ethical lapses that dogged Lee throughout his campaign. Just days before the election, parliament approved an independent counsel investigation into allegations that Lee manipulated stock. "After all, the people chose the economy over morality," the Maeil Business Newspaper wrote in an editorial for its Thursday editions. [Source: Burt Herman, Associated Press, December 19, 2007]

Lee ran on the following policies: 1) Initiating "Korea 747 Vision" plan to maintain annual growth of 7 percent, double per capita GDP to US$40,000 and make South Korea the world's seventh-largest economy (rising from 13th); 2) Making South Korea more business friendly by increasing deregulation, cutting corporate taxes and developing a comprehensive market-based plan to cool the country's overheated real estate market. 3) Applying international pressure on North Korea to make it completely give up nuclear weapons and open up North Korea by building five free economic zones in the communist North, restoring the North's infrastructure and creating a US$40 billion international development fund for pay for it; 4) Strengthening a security alliance with United States and improving ties with Japan, China and Russia; 5) building a waterway at a cost of about US$15 billion from the south of the country to the north, connecting Seoul and Busan, that would be used for the transport of goods, provide flood control and attract tourists. [Source: Reuters]

Lee Myung-bak Cleared of Fraud Before Taking Office

A 2001 business scandal involving Lee Myung-bak surfaced in the days leading up to the election. The matter was directed to an independent counsel which cleared Lee of all corruption charges before he took office in February 2008. Associated Press reported: “The announcement ended a probe over suspicions that Lee colluded in a 2001 stock case, a controversy that plagued Lee throughout last year's campaign. "It is fortunate that all suspicions were cleared once again," Lee said in comments released by his office. "I thank the people who have given me trust and support so far. I think the way to repay this is to work harder and devote myself to serving the people and saving the nation's economy." [Source: Associated Press, February 21, 2008]

“Government prosecutors had already cleared Lee of the allegations, which he also strongly denied, weeks before the election. But rival lawmakers pushed for the special probe in an apparent attempt to keep the scandal alive through the vote. "The president-elect was not involved in the stock price manipulation," special prosecutor Chung Ho-young said in a televised announcement of the outcome of a 38-day investigation.

“Even if Lee had been found at fault, he would have still been able to assume office Monday as scheduled because the constitution grants sitting presidents immunity from criminal prosecution except with especially serious charges such as treason. However, such a case would have significantly undermined his mandate to assume the highest office in South Korea. Lee was also cleared of allegations that he had owned a tract of land in Seoul under another person's name and lied about it, and that he gave illicit business favors to a company while serving as Seoul's mayor from 2002-2006.

The scandal came to a head in November with the extradition from the United States of fugitive Korean-American fund manager Kim Kyung-jun, who once had joined Lee in setting up an Internet financial firm. Kim was accused of making millions of dollars by rigging stock prices from a separate investment company and fleeing to the United States with the ill-gotten gains.

At issue has been allegations by Lee's liberal rivals that the money used for the stock manipulation came from a third investment firm, known as BBK, and that Lee was its real owner — meaning he was involved in the crime. Lee has claimed the accusations were a plot by the rival party to discredit him. Just days before the election, a 2000 video surfaced of Lee bragging in a speech that he founded BBK. Lee said the comments were taken out of context.

South Korea Shifts to the Right with Lee Myung Bak

Lee’s easy victory amidst fraud claims was widely viewed as a referendum for economic reform and an end to the left-leaning leadership. Donald Kirk wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “With Lee Myung Bak receiving nearly as many votes as all 10 other candidates combined, analysts see his triumph as a return to traditional conservative values and repudiation of the liberal policies of the outgoing president, Roh Moo Hyun, and Mr. Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, who forged the country's reconciliation with North Korea. "This will be good for the economy," says Huh Chan Guk, director of economic research at the Korea Economic Research Institute, with strong links of the chaebol business conglomerates."He's a practical person. He'll be different from his predecessors. He will deal with issues and come up with workable solutions." [Source: Donald Kirk, Christian Science Monitor December 20, 2007]

“Besides revitalizing an economy seen as stagnant, Lee also promises to adopt a more critical view of the government's policy of reconciliation with North Korea. He has said he wants to "review" his predecessors' "Sunshine Policy" of diplomatic and economic engagement with the North. Lee has told voters that he will demand "reciprocity" from North Korea before the government follows through on pledges to provide vast amounts of aid. At the least, he has said, North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons program first. Although Lee is not expected to undo the policy of reconciliation with North Korea, says Kim Eui Young, dean of international affairs at Kyunghee University in Seoul, "he's different from President Roh." Professor Kim sees President-elect Lee as "a little more realistic than idealistic."

“Lee's harder line on North Korea is also likely to improve frayed ties with the US, whose position during two years of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program has shifted to accommodate the current South Korean government's reconciliation efforts with the North. Kim Sung Han, professor at Seoul's Korea University, says Lee's "primary task is to upgrade the U.S. relationship," predicting that "maybe the principle of reciprocity will be emphasized."

“Yet even with the U.S. focus on South Korea's relationship with its northern neighbor, no one here doubts that the economy far outweighs security concerns. The North and its nuclear program is almost a nonissue, especially for young Koreans, to whom a 20 percent unemployment rate among recent college graduates is far more worrisome. "He will spend a lot of energy in restoring the Korean economy," says Professor Kim. "That will be his primary task."

“But Lee's critics fear he will favor the chaebol – the backbone of Korea's economic ascendency since the Korean war – at the expense of small- and medium-sized enterprise, removing rules and regulations that Roh and his aides see as needed to level a field in which the chaebol are by far the biggest players. "Lee's whole thinking is that the chaebol should control the economy," says Peter Bartholomew, a business consultant here for the past 40 years. "He is too biased toward the chaebol."”

Lee Myung-bak as President

Lee’s administration faced several challenges in its first year. One of his first acts was to reopen the Korean market to beef imports from the United States, which had been stopped in 2003 because of concerns over mad cow disease. Lee also had to cope with the effects of the global financial crisis on the South Korean economy, which then stabilized in 2009 and grew in 2010. A new free-trade agreement with the United States was signed in December 2010 and finally ratified in November 2011.

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “In April 2008, Lee's party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. That month South Korea agreed to resume imports of U.S. beef, banned five years before over concerns about mad cow disease. The news provoked weeks of antigovernment protests, which forced Lee to reconstitute his government and to renegotiate the agreement. The killing of a South Korean tourist by the North Korean military at Mt. Kumgang in North Korea led South Korea to suspend tourist visits to the site and increased tensions with the North, and by the end of 2008 the North had reacted to Lee's tougher approach to relations by closing the rail line between the two nations.” [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

“Lee's government also was confronted by the opposition, whose legislators occupied the parliament for two weeks at the turn of the year to prevent passage of government bills and ratification of the free-trade treaty with the United States. In the April 2012, parliamentary elections the ruling New Frontier party (the former Grand National party) narrowly won a majority of the seats; both major parties had been tainted by corruption scandals.

Michael Schuman wrote in Time: After Lee became president of South Korea in 2008, he was bombarded by a series of crises. Weeks after Lee's inauguration, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Seoul over his decision to allow imports of U.S. beef, which had been banned due to concerns about mad-cow disease. In 2008, the global financial meltdown hit Korea especially hard, and businessmen blamed Lee and his policy team for failing to build international confidence in their economy. North Korea has been increasingly threatening during his tenure — rearing its head yet again with a nuclear test. In May 2009 on top of all that, Lee had to contend with the political fallout from the tragic suicide of his presidential predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun. [Source: Michael Schuman, Time May 25, 2009]

Roh, who served as South Korea's president from 2003 to 2008, jumped from a 100-foot cliff on May 23 while hiking near his home. Roh's death has unleashed tremendous public sympathy for the former president — and ire towards the current one. Tens of thousands of mourners arrived in Bongha, the town in the country's south where Roh retired, to pay their respects in tents set up near a community center. But the solemn scene had become a political protest by Roh's supporters, who accuse the Lee administration of pushing Roh to his death through a vengeful and unfounded corruption investigation.

After that Lee had to tread carefully. As a conservative, he was already highly unpopular with Roh's more liberal political base. Lee reversed many of Roh's initiatives upon taking office, including his soft stance towards North Korea.

Lee Myung-bak and North Korea

Lee pursued a harder line than his predecessor in relations with the North, calling for it to make progress on human rights and nuclear disarmament. As a result, the North escalated tensions with South Korea. According to Britannica.com: “There were a few positive moments, such as an October 2010 reunion between relatives from both North and South who had been separated by the Korean War, but more often the relationship was chilly or even overtly hostile. In March 2010 a South Korean warship was sunk in the Yellow Sea off Paengnyong (Baengnyeong) Island, killing 46 sailors. In late November North Korean artillery units bombarded Yonp’yong (Yeonpyeong) Island, and several civilians and members of the military on the island died. Lee apologized for having failed to prevent such an attack, and his defense minister resigned over the incident.

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “Tensions with the North continued into 2009, aggravated by actions that included the North's temporary closure of access to South Korean factories in the North and subsequent demands for wage and rent increases for those factories, the launches of a number of rockets by the North including a long-range missile, and a second nuclear test. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

“Relations with the North improved a little in August 2009, but Lee emphasized that the North must adhere to the 2007 six-party agreement, and relations generally remained difficult. The March 2010, sinking of a South Korean warship near a maritime border disputed by the North led to new tensions between the two nations. A multinational investigation determined that the ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, and South Korea cut trade links with the North and took other action; unofficial food shipments to the North did not resume until mid-2011. The North has also engaged in cyberattacks against government and commercial computer systems in the South.

In October 2010, Lee proposed a "reunification tax", according to Reuters, to help fund the expected US$1 trillion bill without any signs that North and South Korea were anywhere near close to reconciliation, while maintained his tough stance against the North. [Source: Brett Cole, Reuters, Aug 15, 2010]

Lee Myung-bak Visits Disputed Islands Claimed by Japan and South Korea

In August 2012, in the closing months of his term as president, Lee became the first South Korean president to visit some disputed islands that are technically part of Japan but are claimed by South Korea. The BBC reported: Lee Myung-bak flew to the islands, which are known as Dokdo in South Korea and as Takeshima in Japan. Both South Korea and Japan say they have a historical claim to the islands, and the issue has been a long-standing thorn in relations. The islands, which are roughly equidistant from the two countries, are small but lie in fishing grounds which could also contain large gas deposits. Analysis [Source: BBC, 10 August 2012]

“The Japanese government's response has been swift — Tokyo has summoned the South Korean ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Seoul. A Kyodo news agency report said Japan had recalled its ambassador from South Korea.The dispute over these islands is a sensitive issue and one that has often been a hurdle to the otherwise improving relations between the two countries. Many Japanese media outlets say it is inevitable that the bilateral relationship will suffer. Kyodo also reported that the two countries had postponed an annual meeting between their finance ministers as an apparent consequence of the visit.

South Korea has stationed a small coastguard detachment on the islands since 1954. The only known civilian residents are Kim Seong-do, an elderly fisherman, and his wife, Shin-yeol. The Guardian reported: “After arriving by helicopter from the nearby island of Ulleungdo, Lee said that South Korea "must continue to protect its territory". He left the island later in the afternoon.Officials in Seoul said Lee's visit was not designed to provoke Japan. An unnamed official said the trip was intended only to highlight the island's importance as a natural reserve. "There shouldn't be anything unusual in a national leader visiting a place that is our territory," the official told Reuters. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, August 10, 2012]

Lee Myung-Bak Did a Good Job as President?

Robert Kelly, the professor who was famously who interrupted on BBC news by his kids in March 2017, wrote in Asian Security Blog: “Lee Myung Bak was a lot better than most Koreans give him credit for and is probably Korea’s best president in its democratic history. Most Koreans don’t think so. Like Bush 2, whom I think was his model, at least originally, he left office controversial and unloved. When I defend Lee to students, family, and colleagues I get regular groans: The Four Rivers Project has turned into another slushy, environmentally destructive, unnecessary white elephant vanity project (mostly true). The chaebol on Lee’s watch have become even more powerful and intertwined with Korea’s political elite (absolutely); desperately needed anti-trust action has not occurred (very true). Borrowing from the GOP, Christianity has entered Korean politics as a wedge-issue (I don’t really see that, but every Buddhist I know dislikes Lee). Crony capitalism and corruption are still a big problem (definitely), and the surveillance scandal (another bad Bush habit) means Lee may be indicted, continuing Korea’s ignominious tradition of prosecuting its ex-presidents. Lee did little break the nepotistic oligarchy that dominates Korea and so badly alienates its under-40s. [Source: Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations in the Political Science and Diplomacy Department of Pusan National University in Busan, Korea.Asian Security Blog, June 5, 2013]

“But here are four big things Lee has done right for which he, inexplicably, receives almost no credit: 1) Despite the Great Recession, which occurred on Lee’s watch through no fault of his own, unemployment stayed below 4 percent for his entire tenure and GDP never contracted. Wow. Obama would have sailed into reelection with that record; that is simply astonishing. American employment peaked close to 10 percent, and European unemployment more than tripled Korea’s rate. More generally, as the rest of the OECD entered a nasty recession, Korea did not; Korea grew, even in 2009. In fact, the Great Recession barely reached Korea. No banks collapsed. No European-style austerity riots broke out. Exports held up. A wisely-sought credit line from the U.S. Treasury defended the won, which bounced back quickly after a one-year decline. For all the talk of inequality and ‘economic democratization,’ Korea’s Gini coefficient, a formal measure of inequality, is lower than in the US, China or Japan. Lee also pushed through two major free trade agreements, obvious boons to growth given how trade-dependent Korea. (The Korean left’s shameless demagoguing of deals so clearly healthy for an export economy was both intellectually dishonest and bad for growth.) If any western leader had this record of economic management in the last five years, they’d be hailed as the reincarnation of Adam Smith, yet Koreans seem unwilling to admit this tremendous achievement.

“2) Lee also contained Korea’s debt and deficit during the Great Recession – an amazing achievement yet again, given the budget-busting we see in the EU, US, and Japan. During Lee’s presidency, the budget ran a deficit only once (in 2009), and debt as a percent of GDP rose just 2.5 percent. And somehow Korea’s aggregate tax take is just 23 percent of GDP while nonetheless providing universal healthcare and expanding free school lunches for children (a big issue here in the last year or so). Wow. Who else in the G-20 or OECD can chalk up post-Great Recession numbers like that? America has added some 5 trillion USD in new debt since 2007, pushing its total public debt stock close to 80 percent of GDP. Its deficit exceeds a staggering one trillion USD and cost the U.S. its AAA credit rating two years. Mercifully, Korea entirely lacks the endless budget shenanigans that have crippled American politics for 30 years, with its regular threats to basic safety-net programs like Social Security. In Europe and Japan, it is somehow worse. Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds a frightening and historically unprecedented 200 percent; nothing seems to make Japan grow (until now, we hope). And Europe of course is caught in triple crisis of political gridlock, harsh austerity, and the never-ending euro-drama. By contrast Korea has calm and well-managed budgets, reasonable taxes and acceptable safety-nets, despite the Great Recession. That Koreans won’t credit President Lee for this huge achievement just baffles me.

“3) Lee ended South Korea’s role as the ‘sucker’ with NK while prudently managing crises like Yeonpyeong. In 1997, genuine rapprochement with NK was untested; Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy détente was worth a try. But by the mid-2000s, it was also clear that it had failed. The Sunshine Policy was evolving into permanent appeasement and, paradoxically, a lifeline for a brutal regime that regularly threatened and bullied SK. Lee was right to pull the plug without concrete change Kim Jong Il was obviously unwilling to make. Inevitably, NK hit back, and Lee managed the fallout well. He withstood the bizarre conspiracy theories from the left about the Cheonan sinking, while also muzzling conservatives ready to risk escalation after the Yeonpyeong shelling. The latter case was particularly dangerous, as the possibility of uncontrolled escalation loomed if hot-headed decisions to hit back were made. Lee wisely choose prudence over the ideological satisfactions of the Korean right and media.

“In short, managing NK – without simply buying it off as the previous two presidents did – is extraordinarily hard, and Lee did a really good job given the weak hand he has to play. By weak, I mean things like the extraordinary concentration and vulnerability of SK’s population to NK strikes; the bizarre and genuinely disturbing sympathy of the SK left for NK; the growing belligerence of the SK right regarding NK (if another Yeonpyeong happens, a counterstrike is likely); and the awkward but necessary role of US forces in Korea in all this. Managing this tangle is very difficult, yet of existential importance to SK. I can’t see how any other Korean leader could have down substantially better, and worse could easily have occurred.

“4) Lee reaffirmed the critical American alliance. Much of Korea’s latent anti-Americanism comes, understandably, from its very unequal, almost clientelistic, relationship with the United States. Korea is very dependent on the US, both for security and economic growth. For proud, nationalist Koreans, this is a bitter pill, and it leads to strange outbursts like the beef protests that were more about Korean pride against American domination than beef. But it is undeniably true that the US-Korea alliance hugely benefits Korea while providing no obvious gain for the US. Were NK to absorb SK, the U.S. would scarcely be affected, as the Cold War is now over. Polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found since the mid-2000s that only 40 percent of American want to fight in a second Korean war, even if NK provokes it. While NK is an obviously critical issue for locals like Russia, China, and Japan, not to mention SK itself, the leninist global threat to the US, once represented by the DPRK, is long gone. Today Korea is simply one more issue among many for the US, including terrorism, Iran, Pakistan, the drug war in Latin America, and transnational problems like global warming and proliferation. Further, SK is more than capable economically of defending itself. SK spends a paltry 2.7 percent of GDP on defense, and Ron Paul’s traction last year in the U.S. stems in part from the growing belief in the U.S. that it is overcommitted overseas.

“In short, it would have been very easy for the US-SK relations to drift further (as under Lee’s predecessor who dislike George Bush intensely), with the long-term result that Korea would stand alone. Given that Korea is encircled by large powers, plus NK, the external patronage of the U.S. is very valuable. In the past, Korea was always in someone’s orbit (usually China). The U.S. alliance helps forestall that now. Recognizing that US security interests here are waning, but great value of the alliance to Korea, Lee swallowed his pride and went to the Americans as his predecessors would not. The Korean outrage over the golf-car ‘incident’ shows just how touchy this can be for Korea’s sensitive to the obvious inequality of the US-Korean relationship. But Lee, unlike so many South Koreans, realizes that the alternative to the U.S. tie is not full-throated Korean autonomy against the world, but isolation in a very tough neighborhood where South Korea is both small and vulnerable. Trying to hold the Americans here as long as possible is very wise, and Lee deserves great praise for grasping that uncomfortable truth over politically easier nationalist posturing of his predecessors. Like the NK issue above, this is existentially important to SK, and Lee made the right choice. That’s historic.”

Lee Myung Pak Scandals and Controversial Pardons

January 2013, a few weeks before his term was over, was accused of abusing his power by issuing pardons to a number of his former aides and associates. The BBC reported: A spokesman for Mr Lee said the 55 pardons had been carried out "according to law and procedure". Mr Lee's brother, who was last week sentenced to two years for corruption, was not among those pardoned. There had been speculation that Lee Sang-deuk's trial was rushed through in order to ensure he was eligible for a pardon. However, the Korea Times said that he was ineligible as he has appealed against his sentence. South Korean presidents are constitutionally allowed to issue pardons and often do so to mark national holidays or the end of their terms. [Source: BBC, January 29, 2013]

“Mr Lee has himself issued seven rounds of pardons during his five-year presidency. Those on the latest list included his close friend Chun Shin-il and a close political ally, Choi See-joong, both of whom had been sentenced for bribery, as well as the former speaker of the national assembly Park Hee-tae and a former aide to Mr Lee, Kim Hyo-jae, who were both jailed over a vote-buying scandal.

In July 2012, Lee apologized to the nation for corruption cases involving his elder brother and inner circle. CNN reported: “Lee Myung-bak apologized to his country for what he called "shameful incidents" involving his family and inner circle. Earlier this month, his older brother, Lee Sang-deuk was arrested on bribery charges involving two troubled Korean banks. This week, prosecutors in Korea sought arrest warrants for two former aides to Lee on the suspicion of receiving bribes from the same two banks. "I came into the office with firm determination to bring a clean political climate," Lee said. "I tried, by returning my entire fortune to the society and donating my salary. I was proud that I thought I brought in good results. But my heart collapsed and I cannot keep my head up after what happened to people so close to me." [Source: KJ Kwon and Madison Park, CNN, July 24, 2012]

“His brother, Lee Sang-deuk is a former six-term lawmaker and has widely been considered the major force behind Lee's presidential election in 2007. Lee Sang-deuk has remained in a detention center since his arrest on July 11, over allegations he received about half a million dollars from the banks Solomon and Mirae in exchange for exerting influence over officials investigating the banks, according to a court official.”

In 2017, Lee Sang-deuk was sentenced to 15 months in jail in a corruption case involving South Korea's top steelmaker POSCO. Yonhap reported: “Lee was indicted in late 2015 on charges that he helped three companies gain financially from transactions with POSCO in exchange for peddling influence to solve one of the steelmaker's key problems — a height limitation on its factory buildings.

Lee Myung-bak Jailed for 15 years on Corruption Charges

In October 2018, Seoul court sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption, making him the fourth former South Korean president to be jailed. Lee was charged with accepting around US$10 million in illegal funds from institutions like Samsung and his own intelligence service, fuelling ongoing concerns over the cozy ties between government and business leaders. [Source: Reuters, October 5, 2018]

Reuters reported: “The Seoul Central District Court found Lee guilty of embezzlement of about 24.6 billion won (US$21.77 million) from a private auto parts maker headed by his brother, and accepting bribes from Samsung and others, fining Lee 13 billion won in addition to the jail sentence. “Such actions from the president, the head of state and the leader of the executive branch, can be severely condemned as it does not stop at violating the fairness and integrity of the presidential office but undermines trust in the entire public office,” judge Chung Kye-sun said.

Lee, 76, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the investigation that led to the trial was politically motivated “revenge” by current President Moon Jae-in, who came to office vowing to clean house after the Park scandal and who has previously criticized Lee over an investigation into another former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Moon served as Roh’s chief of staff, and the two liberal leaders had a close relationship before Roh committed suicide in 2009 after being questioned on corruption allegations during Lee’s presidency. Lee was not in attendance at the verdict, which was televised live. Prosecutors had sought a 20-year sentence for Lee.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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