Former Hyundai CEO Wins South Korean Presidency

Thu December 20, 2007 - National Edition
Burt Herman - ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Former Hyundai CEO Lee Myung-bak, known as “The Bulldozer” for his determination to get things done, rolled over all opposition and lingering financial fraud allegations to win South Korea’s presidency Dec. 19, ending a decade of liberal rule.

Lee, who turned 66 on election day and has also served as the mayor of Seoul, earned a landslide victory on a wave of discontent for incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, whom many believe bungled the economy and dragged down the Asian nation’s rapid growth.

The move into South Korea’s presidential Blue House by Lee’s conservative Grand National Party was expected to herald closer ties with the U.S. and a more critical view of relations with communist North Korea, which has been lavished with aid by Roh’s administration.

The National Election Commission said Lee had won 48.7 percent of the vote with 99.9 percent of ballots counted. Liberal Chung Dong-young was a distant second with 26.2 percent. The margin of victory for Lee was by far the largest in any South Korean presidential election.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey congratulated Lee on his victory and stressed the importance of the countries’ close cooperation at international talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Lee heads to office amid progress in the long-running standoff over North Korea’s atomic program, fostered by U.S. political and economic concessions to Pyongyang.

The president-elect is expected to tie aid to continued compliance with international demands in the nuclear dispute in line with Washington’s wishes, but make no dramatic change in assistance to the North as long as it remains on the path to disarmament.

Lee emphasized the economy in his campaign with a “747” pledge — promising to raise annual growth to 7 percent, double the country’s per capita income to $40,000 and lift South Korea to among the world’s top seven economies. He also proposed a “Grand Canal” linking Seoul to the southern port city of Busan that would improve transport and be a tourist attraction.

“Today, the people gave me absolute support. I’m well aware of the people’s wishes,” Lee told supporters at his party’s headquarters. “I will serve the people in a very humble way. According to the people’s wishes, I will save the nation’s economy that faces a crisis.”

President Roh congratulated Lee on his win. “We respect the people’s choice shown in this election,” presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said in a statement.

Hundreds of supporters watching the results on a giant TV in front of the Grand National Party’s headquarters burst into song election day evening as Lee’s victory became clear.

“I am very happy and it is like retaking democracy after a decade” of liberal rule, said Park Mi-won, a housewife in her 50s.

Lee rose from the poverty that gripped the peninsula after the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War and worked as a janitor to put himself through college.

He first gained prominence as head of Hyundai’s construction unit, which symbolized South Korea’s meteoric economic rise in the 1960-70s. As Seoul’s mayor from 2002-2006, 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.

“I feel good that the right person was elected. I voted for him because he is an economic president,” said Lee Myung-ja, 60, a housewife who was among crowds gathered to watch vote results near a restored stream in central Seoul that was Lee’s landmark project as mayor. “I hope President Lee Myung-bak will focus on economic growth so as to make the people better-off.”