From Trash to Riches: Meet South Korea's New President

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 Lee Myung-bak's advisers. "A conqueror, a Viking," is how he was described by others.

Lee grew up in abject poverty. He and his brother used to go to an alcohol distillery to fill their empty stomachs with grain. His parents lacked the money to send him to high school and he worked as a vendor at a market to provide extra income for the household. As a university student, he would get up at the crack of dawn to work as a garbage collector. At the time, South Korea was under a military dictatorship and Lee was the head of the pro-democracy student protest group. He was arrested in 1964 and spent three years behind bars.

Two months ago, for his 66th birthday, Lee won the elections, putting an end to the left's decade-long domination of power. A pro-U.S. conservative known as a proponent of the free market and democracy, he is also the first president from the private sector. His supporters see his tale as representative of the nation: A garbage man-cum-millionaire whose fortune is now estimated at $37 million is like South Korea's transformation from being a backwards nation to an Asian Tiger.

South Korea's ambassador to Israel, Doctor Shin Kak-Soo, told Haaretz yesterday the new president's foreign policy priority will be resolving the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. When asked if his country's toughening stance toward its northern neighbor will lead to a similar change of policy toward Iran's nuclear program, he said: "We supported the international community's second set of sanctions on Iran, and we will do the same with the third."