Cinderella in Seoul's Blue House
A few hours before the New York Philharmonic Orchestra captured the headlines - thanks to today's surrealistic performance in Pyongyang, North Korea - on the southern side of the Korean peninsula a new president was being sworn in, who is himself a walking legend.
"He's a magician," said one of his advisers. "A conqueror, a Viking," is how he was described by others. "He aspires to make the impossible possible, and he is capable of anything."
The story of Lee Myung-bak, a member of South Korea's conservative right-wing party, is a rare Cinderella story. He walked away with December's elections, winning almost 50 percent of the votes, leaving his rival from the liberal left far behind, with only 27 percent. It was the greatest victory in a presidential election since South Korea began holding democratic elections in 1987.
The new resident of the Blue House - the Korean White House - was born in 1941 in Osaka, Japan, where his father worked on a farm. This was the period of the Japanese occupation of Korea. At the end of World War II, the family set out to return to Korea, but the ship on which they were sailing sank at sea. His family was saved, but all their belongings disappeared into the depths.
The family settled in the port city of Pohang on Korea's southeastern coast, where they lived in abject poverty. According to his biography, Lee and his brother used to visit one of the city's alcohol distilleries in order to stock up on grains of wheat to fill their constantly growling stomachs.
His parents had no means to pay for his high school studies, and he was forced to help them to support the family. He began to work in markets and, among other things, sold popcorn and ice cream in front of the entrance to a girls high school. Lee says that his face would turn black from the popcorn machine, and would turn red every time a girl lingered next to his stall.
Lee worked hard during the day and studied at night, winning a scholarship for evening studies at a commercial high school. At the age of 19, he was accepted to study economics at the prestigious Korea University in the capital, Seoul.
During his entire student career Lee worked with trash. Every morning, he would get up at 4 A.M. in order to collect the garbage in the streets.
This period coincided with the military dictatorship in South Korea. At the time, Lee headed student demonstrations in favor of democracy and against normalization of ties with Japan. He was arrested in 1964 and sentenced to three years in prison, which were commuted to four months and a fine.
He has a burning desire to do things, nothing can stop him, Koreans feel. In 1965 he passed the entrance exam to the Hyundai Group, "the engine of the Korean economic miracle." His managers immediately singled him out. At the age of 35 he was appointed the director of BTP, the group's construction firm, and he was soon to become the youngest CEO in its history, and to manage another nine of its companies.
As part of his job he was required to supervise major construction projects: towers, bridges, new railways, nuclear plants and hospitals. That was the moment when he was dubbed "The Bulldozer," a name which has stuck.
In 1992 he had already marked his next target - politics. He joined the conservative party (the Grand National Party, GNP) and was appointed adviser to President Kim Young Sam. Within a decade, Lee had captured the mayoralty of Seoul.
Without raising taxes - the work of a magician - he initiated major projects: He built parks, widened sidewalks, streamlined public transportation, and renovated and cleaned the large (about six kilometers in length) and polluted canal that flows through the heart of the capital. He turned it into an attraction for the city residents. He ordered to have the highway that covered the canal destroyed. This project became the symbol of his activity as mayor, and won him the epithet "hero of the environment" from Time magazine.
On his 66th birthday - and 37th wedding anniversary - Lee won the presidential elections, and put an end to a decade of left-wing rule in the country. The pro-American conservative, who favors the market economy and democratic values, is also the first president from the business sector.
He calls himself "the CEO of the country" and promises - how familiar - to put the smile back on the faces of the citizens. His rivals see him as a "corrupt tycoon," who concealed income and was involved in fishy deals, but these accusations have never been proven. His supporters see him as the mirror of the country: The story of the hungry boy, the garbage worker, whose wealth is today estimated at $37 million, is the story of the backward country whose GDP was only $80 per person in the 1960s, but which became the third-largest Asian economy in the 1990s, and even experienced two-digit growth for a time.
The story of his life was presented in a popular television drama about "the heroes of the business community." Koreans hope that his success will also cross over to the country, which has stagnated in the past decade. Lee's governmental revolution is also supposed to bring about a revolution in the economic, social and diplomatic agendas.
1. The economy. Its acceleration is the new president's top priority. During his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun's term, growth slowed, the gaps between rich and poor increased, real estate prices soared and unemployment among young people increased. The stock market is at a peak and while multinational corporations are doing well, small and medium-sized businesses have been unable to cope with foreign competition, because of cheap labor overseas.
Lee's vision is called Project 747: He promises to restore faith in the economy and to turn it into the seventh in the world by 2017 (today it is in 12th place), to bring growth to a level of 7 percent (4.5 percent today) and to double the GDP within a decade to a level of $40,000 per capita.
He plans to do this by making employment policy more flexible and creating 700,000 jobs, reducing bureaucracy and streamlining the public sector, cutting taxes and privatizing banks and other businesses.
As part of his "pharaonic" plans, Lee also intends to set up a system of canals all over the country, and to build a wide canal from Seoul in the north to the port of Busan in the south, in order to reduce the cost of transporting merchandise and to serve as a tourist attraction.
2. Strengthening ties with the regional powers. Lee has promised to strengthen South Korea's ties with Japan, China, and Russia, and particularly with the United States. While his predecessor represented left-wing nationalism and anti-Americanism, which led to friction and even an exchange of verbal attacks, Lee considers the U.S. an ally and calls it "our closest friend." Newsweek, which interviewed him this week, even dubbed him "the Sarkozy of South Korea." His term as president is expected to be characterized by a honeymoon in Seoul-Washington relations.
3. North Korea. Many in Seoul think that the Sunshine Policy practiced in 1998 by then-president Kim Dae Jung and continued by Roh did not yield the hoped-for results. They claim that the left-wing government in the South "toadied" to Pyongyang, and funded the corrupt regime which continued to deceive the world regarding its willingness to abandon its nuclear program.
The mantra of Lee's new policy is "pragmatism," as opposed to the "mistaken idealism" of his predecessors. His motto - mutuality, give and take, if they give, they'll receive - promises a tougher attitude towards the North, but he also offers a significant carrot: Vision 3000 - economic projects that will raise the GDP in the North from several hundred dollars to $3,000 per person - if Pyongyang totally abandons its nuclear program and cooperates in the area of human rights.
4. The Middle East, Iran, Israel. On the face of it, say diplomatic officials in Jerusalem, the changeover in South Korea is not expected to change the nature of its relations with Israel, which are good in any case.
However, in a manner similar to the change that took place in France after Sarkozy's victory, making pro-Americanism the bon ton and strengthening the Washington-Seoul axis, work indirectly in Israel's favor.
Lee appointed Yu Myung-hwan as his foreign minister; Yu served as ambassador to Israel from 2002-2004, and is seen here as a "friend." The president himself, a believing Christian, was due to visit Israel in 2005, but was forced to postpone his visit for technical reasons.
The South Korean desire for greater involvement in the region as part of its "demonstration of international responsibility" (Seoul has forces in Iraq and Lebanon) is expected to be maintained, and the tough stance regarding the North Korean nuclear program may be reflected even more strongly in regard to Iran's nuclear plans.