South Korea

Environmental bulldozer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2007, 12:00am


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They call him 'The Bulldozer' but he claims to be an environmentalist. He wants to build 'a new Korea' but his biggest plan is for a decidedly old-fashioned transnational canal. And he has no diplomatic experience but he looks almost certain to be South Korea's next president.

Meet Lee Myung-bak, 65, the go-getting former business executive and ex-mayor of Seoul who was nominated by South Korea's conservative opposition party this week to run in the presidential election on December 19.

The right-wing Grand National Party, which comfortably leads South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's liberal supporters in all polls, held its presidential primary poll in an appropriate arena: Seoul's Olympic Stadium. In an event televised live, he beat out rival Park Geun-hye, by 81,084 votes to 78,632. Ms Park was more popular within the party, but Mr Lee won due to public support, which was also balloted.

'We will build a new Korea,' he told ecstatic supporters. 'I accept this as the people's demand to revive the economy.'

Ms Park, daughter of former general and assassinated president Park Chung-hee - equally respected for shaping Korea's economic miracle, and reviled for his suppression of democracy - accepted defeat gracefully, saying she would work to help the GNP take power. Her statement ended months of vicious infighting. Dubbed a 'beautiful defeat', her move was unusual in South Korea, where vanquished politicians have frequently defected or formed their own parties.

Mr Lee - whose proposed policies and public persona bear more resemblance to those of Park Chung-hee than Park's daughter's - had the campaign slogan 'Economy First'. His 'Korea 747' strategy promises to deliver 7 per cent annual economic growth (compared with 5 per cent now), US$40,000 per capita GDP (more than double the current level) and make South Korea the seventh largest economy (compared with its status as 11th today).

The driven 65-year-old is seen by the public as a self-made man who, despite not being a member of the conglomerate's founding family, successfully headed Hyundai Construction.

As chief executive, he was known as 'The Bulldozer', as much for his take-no-prisoners leadership style as for his ability to get projects completed.

He served as Seoul mayor from 2002 to 2006 where he became the leading voice against Mr Roh's flagship policy to relocate the nation's administrative capital from overcrowded Seoul to the provinces. The failure of that policy, following a decision by the Constitutional Court, was a massive boost for Mr Lee and a major blow for Mr Roh.

The deeply unpopular president, who is generally credited with improving transparency but is also seen to have become bogged down in ideological issues bedeviling domestic politics, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term.

As mayor, Mr Lee also gained kudos for tearing down a giant downtown overpass, uncovering and restoring Seoul's ancient 5.8km stream in the city's centre. The US$400 million project, which he rammed through in four years, is widely seen as one of Asia's most successful inner-city rejuvenation projects. The achievement won him the cover of Time Asia magazine, which lauded his pro-environmental bent.

But it is perceived economic sense that has won him the public support that makes the presidential Blue House look like an easy stroll away, said one expert.

'In the 1997 and 2002 elections, people were concerned with ideology, but now they are more concerned with the economy. Youth unemployment is terrible and taxes are too high,' said Sung Deuk-hahm, a professor of political economy at Korea University. 'The public believe that Mr Lee Myung-bak has the ability to provide better economic conditions because he was a successful CEO of Hyundai.'

He is widely seen as the candidate of big business. He has raised the issue of lifting investment restrictions on conglomerates, a move that could result in the chaebols (family-owned corporations) acquiring banks. Shareholders' rights groups are horrified, seeing this as an enormous moral hazard; less a case of giving an alcoholic the key to the liquor cabinet, more the ownership of a distillery.

On the global front, Mr Lee is expected to be more pro-American than Mr Roh or his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, but questions hang over his apparent lack of international political or diplomatic expertise. But his supporters note that he has headed up construction projects in the Middle East, and his activities at Hyundai helped pave the way for diplomatic normalisation between Seoul and Moscow. His policies towards North Korea are unclear, though he has pledged to accelerate economic co-operation if Pyongyang denuclearises.

But it is his major campaign promise which shows that he has not lost the ability to think big. He had pledged to build a mammoth waterway from Seoul in the northwest to Pusan in the southeast, stating that this will relieve traffic on the crowded Seoul-Pusan highway and empower local economies.

The canal has been criticised for recalling his glory days as Seoul mayor, and it is not clear where the labour would come from given that the nation already faces a labour shortage. Observers think it looks more like the kind of project that vitalised Korea in the 1970s, rather than something the hi-tech nation needs today.

A staunch Christian, Mr Lee is married with one son and two daughters. As a young man, he worked in a street market, then decided to join the army. The first hurdle was medical. 'Boy, even the army would not accept a body like this. How horrible did you treat your body?' the doctor asked him, according to an article on his website. Having overworked himself, he failed the medical and so was excused national service. His publications include My Mother and I See Hope When Everyone Else Sees Despair.

But the knives are out. Breaking the news of his win, left-wing The Hankyoreh newspaper warned a 'tough road lies ahead for Lee Myung-bak'. Personal ethics - a make-or-break issue for Korean politicians - could yet be his downfall. Recent allegations that relatives earned up to US$28 million in real estate speculation, a highly sensitive issue in egalitarian South Korea, hang over him.

'He is being portrayed as 'old development' and I think he may be more divisive than Park Geun-hye,' said one Roh adviser. 'Lee is a victim of the 'development era' when corruption was excused, but now we demand cleanliness and transparency, so Mr Lee Myung-bak may become a victim of the new era. Moral issues are hot issues.'

Mr Roh's Uri Party, seeking to distance itself from the unpopular president, has disbanded, but their assault on Mr Lee has begun.

On Wednesday, state-owned broadcaster KBS reported that the Seoul International Finance Centre, a giant, US$1.6 billion property joint venture between Seoul City and US financial services giant American International Group (AIG), will be sold by the US group as soon as it is finished. It was Mr Lee, who, as Seoul mayor, brokered the sweetheart deal with his chum, then-AIG head Maurice Greenberg.

At the time, Mr Lee said that AIG would locate its Asian headquarters in Seoul once the centre opened, helping to fulfil the city's ambition to become a regional finance hub. But the KBS report alleged that AIG has no intention of doing that. Liberal politicians have put the boot into Mr Lee with relish. The commotion seems to bear out Dr Sung's opinion. Asked what the main electoral battleground will be, he answered: 'Lee Myung-bak'. Given that attack is easier than defence, 'The Bulldozer' may be forced to fight the presidential election in an unfamiliar posture: on the back foot.