Lee's Economic Pitch Finds Following in South Korea

South Korean presidential candidates i i

hide captionSouth Korean presidential candidates pose before a televised debate in Seoul on Dec. 11. The candidates are (from left) Moon Kook-hyun, Chung Dong-young, Lee Myung-bak, Rhee In-jey, Kwon Young-ghil and Lee Hoi-chang.

Jo Yong-hak/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean presidential candidates

South Korean presidential candidates pose before a televised debate in Seoul on Dec. 11. The candidates are (from left) Moon Kook-hyun, Chung Dong-young, Lee Myung-bak, Rhee In-jey, Kwon Young-ghil and Lee Hoi-chang.

Jo Yong-hak/AFP/Getty Images
Lee Myung-bak i i

hide captionLee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of South Korea's main opposition Grand National Party, waves to his supporters while campaigning in Daegu on Dec. 13.

Lee Jong-seung/AFP/Getty Images
Lee Myung-bak

Lee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of South Korea's main opposition Grand National Party, waves to his supporters while campaigning in Daegu on Dec. 13.

Lee Jong-seung/AFP/Getty Images
Map of South Korea i i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Map of South Korea
Alice Kreit, NPR

Despite revived corruption allegations, Lee Myung-bak plowed his way to a substantial win in South Korea's recent presidential election.

Lee ran strongly ahead in the polls, largely on the basis of promises to boost the country's sluggish economy.

Lee is a former mayor of Seoul, whose aggressive style earned him the nickname "the Bulldozer." Before that, he was a top executive for Hyundai Corp., which he says gives him the expertise to raise the country's economic growth rate from the current 5 percent to at least 7 percent.

Popularity Rises on Economic Issues

Shortly before the election, Lee held a 30-point lead over his nearest two rivals in the election to replace outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun. President Roh was constitutionally limited to just one five-year term, but even if he could have run, his popularity with voters plummeted over the past several years.

Roh was elected on the basis of his promises to reconcile with North Korea and take a more independent line from the United States. He has been widely criticized by political opponents, who say he gave North Korea too much investment and aid, while getting little in return.

During the presidential race, the issue of relations between North and South proved to be secondary to the economy in the minds of South Korean voters. Small- and medium-sized businesses in South Korea have been losing market share to neighboring China, where labor costs are much cheaper. Jobs are scarce for young people joining the labor market, and housing costs are out of reach for many.

Some Apparent Ethical Weaknesses

Lee's main weakness continues to appear to be a record of ethical lapses, including his admission that he once tried to evade taxes on a building he owns, and that he used false addresses to get his children into better schools.

Earlier this month, Korean prosecutors cleared Lee of more serious charges, including conspiring to manipulate stock prices. That allegation was recently revived by President Roh, who asked the Justice Ministry for a last-minute investigation.

Prosecutors declined to start an investigation immediately, but Parliament voted to go ahead with plans for an independent probe.

In the meantime, at least with regard to the election, it Lee appears to be living up to one of his own campaign slogans — "Be successful."

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