South Korea shifts right with new president Lee Myung Bak
The election Wednesday of former Hyundai executive may signal a review of South Korea's policy toward the North.
Seoul, South Korea
The conservative former mayor of Seoul roared to an easy victory in South Korea's presidential election Wednesday in what is widely viewed as a referendum for economic reform and an end to the left-leaning leadership of the past decade.Skip to next paragraph
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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. The institute is affiliated with the Federation of Korean Industries, which is made up of the leaders of the conglomerates, known as chaebol, that dominate the economy. "He's a practical person. He'll be different from his predecessors. He will deal with issues and come up with workable solutions."
That endorsement helps explain why Mr. Lee, on his 66th birthday, could win by a lopsided margin over the pro-government candidate, Chung Dong Young, as well as the archconservative independent Lee Hoi Chang, the losing candidate of M.B. Lee's Grand National Party in the last two presidential elections, and eight other minor candidates.
Lee rose to the chairmanship of Hyundai Engineering and Construction at age 35 in the company's heyday as the center of the mighty Hyundai empire. He subsequently entered politics and won widespread respect for his ability to get things done as mayor of Seoul from 2002 to 2006. Analysts expect Lee to roll back regulations and foster growth for Korea's chaebol – some of whose top executives have been convicted in corruption scandals in recent years.
That's in accord with his campaign slogan, "747," the numbers standing for his pledge to adopt policies that he says will raise the annual increase in the gross national product from 4 percent to 7 percent, the annual per capita income from nearly $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and the size of the Korean economy from the world's 11th or 12th to seventh largest.
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 US relationship," predicting that "maybe the principle of reciprocity will be emphasized."
Yet even with the US 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."
In his hour of victory, however, Lee faces formidable opposition – and intense criticism – in a scandal that still threatens to derail his presidency before it begins.
The National Assembly, controlled by loyalists to Mr. Chung, voted on Monday to give a special prosecutor 40 days to investigate Lee's link to an investment fund named BBK after a six-year-old videotape surfaced that showed the president-elect boasting that he ran the fund. Lee has said he has no ties with the fund and knows nothing about the embezzlement and illegal stock trading for which his alleged former partner has been indicted.
Many observers believe Lee may count on his wide margin of victory in Wednesday's election to snuff out the investigation, especially since prosecutors refused to press charges well before revelation of the incriminating videotape.
"BBK will be a problem for a couple of months," says Mr. Kim, "but the new president takes over in a general atmosphere of triumph, and the investigation will be much influenced by that."
Lee's foes promise to pursue the case in hopes that he will eventually be indicted, forcing a leadership crisis and a new election.
"What do you think of a president who has been referred to a special prosecutor," asks Lee Chang Choon, a retired ambassador. "This country is in deep trouble."