From Crushing Poverty To South Korea's Presidency Lee Myung-bak was so poor as a child that he wore his school uniform every day because he had no other clothes. He became a student activist and helped Hyundai become the massive conglomerate it is today. In many ways, Lee's life story — and ultimate success — mirrors that of South Korea.

From Crushing Poverty To South Korea's Presidency

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The president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, has lived a rags-to-riches life. From a childhood in poverty, he became a student activist and now a conservative head of state. The riches came from his role building up one of South Korea's most famous companies, Hyundai.

NPR's Louisa Lim recently talked with Lee about his life and his presidency.

PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Foreign language spoken)


LEE: (Foreign language spoken)


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: In February 2008, Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated as the tenth president of South Korea. It was an astonishing outcome for a poor boy from Pohang, whose number one dream had been simply to get a job. Lee was the fifth of seven children born to a poor farmer. His childhood was one of raw and painful poverty.

LEE: (Through Translator) Some days we would have to chase away our hunger by drinking a lot of water, which only exacerbated the situation.

LIM: But his situation, while dire, was not uncommon.

LEE: (Through Translator) Well, certainly, when I was young, our family was extremely poor. I must also say that the entire country was poor back then. But my family was, even compared to others, we were particularly very poor.

LIM: Lee's autobiography, "The Uncharted Path," has just been released in the U.S. In it, he describes how as a child, his main meals were often the dregs left behind after brewing rice alcohol, leaving him drunk. Despite their poverty, Lee's parents, particularly his mother, instilled strong Christian values in him, which later played into his political philosophy.

LEE: (Through Translator) The only difference between our family and that of my neighbor was the fact that the parents in my neighboring family, they went out to the streets asking for handouts. Whereas, my parents, they wanted us to go out there and work and earn our living, instead of trying to have it easy by asking people for free handouts.

LIM: To this end, Lee worked to put himself through school, selling homemade matches, and rice wrapped in seaweed. By sixth grade, there were few jobs he hadn't done. He paid for his university education by collecting trash.


LIM: In 1964, Lee helped organize huge student demonstrations sparked by the government's normalization of relations with Japan. Martial law was declared, and Lee spent three months in prison. It's a measure of how hard his life was that he seemed to enjoy prison, where he could read and think without being hungry. He described it as a time of renewal, both physical and spiritual.

LEE: (Through Translator) I joined a small company called Hyundai. Back then, it was a very tiny company. And I knew that having a job was about not just earning money, but it was also about fulfilling a man's dignity. It's about gaining happiness.

LIM: Lee was to spend 27 years at Hyundai, where he became the youngest-ever CEO. There, he was responsible for winning Korea's first overseas contract, to build a road in Thailand. This was symbolically important. It was the first step towards building Hyundai into the massive international conglomerate it is today. And other Korean companies followed Hyundai's lead, becoming the powerful conglomerates which drive Korea's economy. At Hyundai, he was nicknamed the Bulldozer, for his dogged determination and focus.

FORMER PRESIDENT ROH MOO-HYUN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In 2002, he went into politics, becoming the mayor of Seoul. He's heard here presiding over a much-acclaimed urban renewal project. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The above speaker is former President Roh Moo-hyun, not President Lee.] As president, his policies have made him deeply unpopular politically. But his personal story of triumph over adversity reflects that of South Korea, the developing country that pulled itself into the developed world by its bootstraps.

LEE: (Through Translator) I used to be a boy who had to stand in line when an American missionary came to visit my village to hand out used clothes. And that little boy who stood in line is now president of a country who once used to receive aid from others, is now able to provide help to other countries.

LIM: Lee has just over a year left in office. As for what he'll do afterwards, he's been taking counsel from Bill Gates. Lee says he's already donated most of his wealth to his own charitable foundation. After president, Lee's next act could be as philanthropist. The uncharted path of this poor boy from Pohang is not yet over.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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