A Brief Biography of President-Elect Lee Myung-bak

    December 20, 2007 09:03

    As a boy, he went to night school and sold pop rice. From a salaryman, he became a corporate CEO. As a politician, he was elected mayor of Seoul. Now he has become president of the country. President-elect Lee Myung-bak's life has by any standards been a success story.

    He was born the fifth of seven children in Osaka, Japan on Dec. 19, 1941. In 1946 right after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, his family returned to Korea and settled in Pohang, his father's hometown. But the ship carrying them capsized, and his family lost what money they had. His father worked as an agricultural laborer and his mother sold fruit. It was a hand-to-mouth existence. Commenting on Pohang where he spent his childhood, Lee once said, "While chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, I sometimes visited Pohang to attend some events at Pohang Iron and Steel Corporation. But I went back to Seoul as soon as I finished my business there. The town always reminds me of the extreme poverty I experienced there."

    President-elect Lee Myung-bak visits the site of the Cheonggye Stream restoration in October 2003, when he was mayor of Seoul.
    Even as a schoolchild, he had to work to support his family. He sold rice rolls, flour cakes and pop rice near a wire-fenced military base. He couldn't even conceive the idea of going to high school, but his middle school teacher persuaded his mother to send him to evening class at a commercial high school. He worked during the day, but studied hard in the evening to get a scholarship. He was first in his school. "I was an honors student, not because I was bright, but because the other students were lazy,” he was to say later.

    After graduating from high school, he came up to Seoul, where he did manual labor during the day and studied at night to prepare for the college entrance exam. He thought at the time he could get a better job with a college background rather than a high school diploma. In the end, he enrolled in the Department of Business Administration at Korea University in 1961, only a year older than his fellow students.

    When he was a junior student, he was elected president of the students council at the College of Commerce of his university. In 1964, when he was acting president of the student council, he participated in a demonstration against the government's moves to normalize relations with Japan. He was sentenced to three years in jail with five years probation on charges of instigating rebellion. He served six months in Seodaemun Prison in Seoul. When his mother came to visit him there, Lee still remembers her saying, "Act according to your own conviction. I’m praying for you."

    President-elect Lee Myung-bak (center in the back row) as a student at the College of Commerce of Korea University.

    Due to his background as a “student activist," he joined Hyundai Construction in 1965. He recalls, "I was on the government's black list because I had been a student activist. With such a background, I couldn't find a job in any decent enterprises. At that time, Hyundai Construction was a small company with a staff of a few scores. I applied for a job in the belief that I wouldn't be stopped from working for such a small company."

    He got one promotion after another as the company grew rapidly. He was promoted to director five years after he joined, to vice president five years after he became a director, to president two years after that, and to chairman 11 years later. When he worked as a supervisor of the site for construction of a highway in Thailand, he put up stubborn resistance to local thugs wielding wooden sticks and knives and succeeded in preventing a company safe box from being stolen.

    Lee left Hyundai in 1992. He was elected from Jongno, Seoul to the 15th National Assembly in 1996. But he resigned and left for the U.S. after it was discovered that he had spent more money than the legally permitted amount on his campaign. He returned to Seoul in 2000 and prepared to resume political activities. In the end, he was elected mayor of Seoul on the Grand National Party ticket in 2002. There, his leading achievement was restoring the Cheonggye Stream in October 2005, laying the foundation for his presidential bid. As mayor of Seoul, he also revamped public transport and built Seoul Forest Park on the Ttukseom area, cementing his image as "working Lee Myung-bak" or "the bulldozer" in people’s minds.

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