Polls: Lee Elected President of South Korea

Exit polls are showing Lee Myung-bak, a conservative former mayor of Seoul, winning South Korea's presidential election. Voters overlooked fraud allegations in hope that the former Hyundai CEO will revive the economy. Lee, of the Grand National Party, received 50.3 percent of the vote.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

South Koreans have elected as their new president a conservative and former top executive at Hyundai. Exit polls show Lee Myung-bak with an overwhelming victory, in a vote that's seen as a rejection of 10 years of liberal government.

NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul.

Hello.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Hi. Now, this wasn't a surprise, this election of Lee Myung-bak.

SHUSTER: No, it wasn't a surprise at all. In polls for weeks, and indeed, for months, Lee has been leading. But the thing is it was a very crowded field. There were 12 candidates. A couple of them, the smaller candidates, dropped out toward the end, so there were 10 on the ballot today.

And so the size of Lee's victory was a surprise. It's very difficult to get such a large vote given the crowded field. And there were a couple of other very well-known candidates, one other conservative and a liberal as well. So Lee pulled off quite a stunning victory.

MONTAGNE: And that was over 50 percent of the vote, even with several candidates in the field.

SHUSTER: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's a financial scandal hanging over at Lee's head, and there were some dramatic developments in the last days of the campaign. Did this not affect the election?

SHUSTER: No, it didn't at all. It might even have ended up being in Lee's favor. There was - there have been allegations for quite some time, of financial wrongdoing, in connection with Lee's part in the collapse of an investment company some years ago.

And a videotape, over the weekend, surfaced that seemed to implicate Lee - Lee, acknowledging that he was a part of this investment company some years ago. And there was a lot of talk in the media, on television and in the newspapers, here that this might cut into his lead. As it turned out, it didn't have any effect, whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: And what accounts, Mike, for the disaster showing of the chief liberal candidate? He got just something of 26 percent of the vote…

SHUSTER: Roughly that.

MONTAGNE: …and - I mean, liberals have been running the country.

SHUSTER: Exactly, liberal presidents have been in office for the last 10 years. In South Korea, a president can only be elected for one, five-year term. And Chung Dong-young was the chief liberal candidate, running against Lee Myung-bak, and he had been a minister in the Cabinet of the current president, Roh Moo-hyun.

But Roh Moo-hyun has had a very difficult presidency. He came in as a human right's lawyer and was expected to do big things, but he was unable to accomplish much of what he promised. He had a lot of problems implementing economic policy and came to be seen as incompetent in dealing with the economy. Maintaining job growth and controlling inflation have been difficult under Roh Moo-hyun.

And so this leading liberal candidate, Chung Dong-young, was associated with those policies. And people simply wanted to reject the liberals after 10 years in office and try for something new.

MONTAGNE: Well, will Lee's election in this veering somewhat to the right make any difference on Seoul's relations with Pyongyang and the controversy over North Korea's nuclear weapons program? Will that change, basically, foreign policy?

SHUSTER: Well in the past, it would've changed because the conservatives were always against what's known here as the Sunshine Policy, the opening toward North Korea that the last 10 years have seen. But gradually, politics has changed in South Korea, and now Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, has essentially embraced similar policies toward North Korea of the last president Roh Moo-hyun. And it looks like things will roughly stay the same on that score.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster, speaking to us from Seoul.

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Ex-Hyundai CEO Elected President in S. Korea

Lee Myung-bak looked likely to be South Korea's next president on Wednesday after exit polls showed he had won a landslide victory, as voters overlooked fraud allegations hoping the former Hyundai CEO can revive the economy.

Lee of the conservative Grand National Party received 50.3 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll sponsored jointly by TV stations KBS and MBC.

Lee, a former Seoul mayor, has led the race for months. He has pledged to take a more critical view of Seoul's engagement with rival North Korea and seek closer U.S. ties. Efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions stand at a critical juncture, with the communist country set to disclose all its programs for eventual dismantlement by a year-end deadline.

His closest rival, liberal Chung Dong-young, had 26 percent in the exit polls, and independent Lee Hoi-chang was third with 13.5 percent. The poll of 70,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

The National Election Commission said Lee was leading with 46.3 percent to Chung's 28.3 percent, with 23.7 percent of the vote counted.

Just days before the vote, the parliament voted to authorize an independent counsel investigation into Lee in a stock manipulation case where prosecutors had already cleared him of wrongdoing. The counsel is to complete the probe before the Feb. 25 inauguration, and Lee has said he would step aside from the presidency if found at fault.

"I want to thank the people who have defended me from numerous negative campaigns," Lee told reporters Wednesday morning after voting in Seoul. "This time, we have to change the government without fail. To do so, all the people should take part in the voting."

Unlike previous elections dominated by security policy with rival North Korea or relations with the United States, this year voters were focused on economic matters due to concern over sky-high real estate prices, soaring unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his can-do business acumen, Lee's support has been bolstered due to dissatisfaction over the five-year term of liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

Lee has made the economy central to his campaign, pledging 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 - known as his "747" pledge.

Lee first gained prominence as head of Hyundai's construction unit that symbolized South Korea's meteoric economic rise in the 1960-70s. As Seoul mayor from 2002-2006, he made his mark by opening up a long-paved-over stream to create a new landmark in the capital that also earned him environmental credibility.

Lee's march to the presidency hit a bump this week when a video was released by his liberal rivals showing him saying in 2000 that he founded a firm implicated in fraud. Although he had acknowledged the same in printed interviews, the video put the words directly into his mouth.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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