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Digital Archive International History Declassified

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Lee Myung-bak

James E. Hoare

Lee Myung-bak was elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 2007.

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LEE MYUNG-BAK (1941- ). Lee Myung-bak was elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 2007. He was born in Osaka, Japan, where his family had moved during the Japanese colonial period. The family returned to Pohang, now in the ROK, at the end of World War II. After school and university, Lee joined the Hyundai Construction Company in 1965, becoming chief executive officer (CEO) in 1988; he was then the youngest CEO in the ROK. During his time at Hyundai, he acquired the nickname “Bulldozer,” supposedly because he once stripped down and repaired a broken bulldozer but perhaps also because of his no-nonsense management approach. His political career began in 1992, when he was elected to the National Assembly as a member of the Democratic Liberal Party. From the beginning, there were questions over his election expenses and he resigned his seat in 1998 to avoid legal action. In 2002, he became mayor of Seoul, where he added to his reputation for getting things done. By then, Lee was a member of the opposition Grand National Party. In 2007, he announced that he would stand as a candidate for the presidential elections against Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, who had been the favorite up to then. Lee won both the nomination and the presidency in December 2007.

Lee had expressed skepticism over a number of his predecessor’s policies, in particular the issue of engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He quickly made it clear on taking office in 2008 that he would not continue the aid that had flowed north over the previous 10 years unless there was movement on the issue of the DPRK’s nuclear program. Existing projects would be examined to see if they should continue, and in the future the ROK would concern itself more with the issue of human rights in the DPRK. In return, he offered what he called Vision 3000, an offer to raise DPRK income levels to $3,000 per capita. The DPRK, which had not criticized Lee directly during the presidential campaign, broke its silence on 1 April 2008 with a blistering attack on him and a rejection of his proposals. Thereafter, relations between the two Koreas steadily deteriorated. There was a certain amount of irony in that, while the ROK was becoming tougher on the DPRK, the U.S. President George W. Bush’s second administration was pursuing a more conciliatory policy in the hope that this would curtail the nuclear program. Only after the end of the Bush administration and the election of Barack Obama did the ROK and U.S. policies reconverge.

In July 2008, Lee drew back somewhat from his earlier tough stand. On 11 July, he made a speech in which he said he would follow a policy of “mutual benefit and common prosperity” and pledged that agreements reached at the 2000 and 2007 Inter-Korean Summits would be honored. By an unfortunate coincidence, that morning an ROK tourist was shot dead at the DPRK’s Geumgang Mountain tourist resort, after allegedly refusing to answer a sentry’s challenge. As the DPRK rejected Lee’s offer, the ROK demanded that it should be allowed to investigate the incident. The DPRK expressed regret but refused to allow an ROK investigation to take place. The ROK then suspended the tours, which have not resumed. Tours to Gaeseong continued, as did the Gaeseong Industrial Zone, but the end of year saw the DPRK suspending the Gaeseong tours and putting pressure on the Gaeseong Industrial Zone. Lee did not change his policy.

The standoff seemed to worsen in 2009, with a DPRK missile launch in April and a nuclear test in May. When UN sanctions followed, the DPRK reacted by saying that all agreements and arrangements between the two Koreas were null and void. It later said, not for the first time, that it would no longer recognize the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Lee did not overreact, and in practice, nothing much happened. By August, there were more hopeful signs, especially when Lee met the high-ranking DPRK delegation that came for former President Kim Dae-jung’s 22 August funeral. Soon afterward, Lee made another offer of a “grand bargain” of aid and security linked to DPRK denuclearization, similar to his earlier proposal. The DPRK rejected it but in less hostile terms than before. There were even talks about a possible summit. Hopes of improved relations continued in early 20 I 0, but the sinking of the ROK corvette, the Cheonan, in March, and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in November, left Lee with little choice but to condemn the DPRK and to seek further sanctions. At the end of what had been a difficult year, Lee began to talk as though reunification of the peninsula was not far off and of the need for a “reunification tax.” Although there was much outrage at the two attacks, neither of Lee’s proposals seemed to strike a note with his fellow citizens. Despite the tensions, DPRK revelations early in 2011 showed that the ROK was apparently still willing to discuss the possibility of a further summit. In reality, it seems unlikely that the DPRK would wish to engage with Lee, whose term of office ends in 2012.

All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher. (Historical Dictionary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by James E. Hoare, published by RLPG Books, appears by permission of the author and publisher).