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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Korean Republic's Presidential X-Files, Part X: Lee Myung-bak - A President who born outside Korean Peninsula and initiator of Bloody MB Doctrine


Lee Myung-bak (Hangul/Hanja/Romanization: 이명박/李明博/Yi Myeong-bak; Born: December 19th 1941) was the 10th President of South Korea from February 25th 2008, to February 25th 2013. Before his election as president, he was the CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, as well as the mayor of Seoul from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2006. He is married to Kim Yoon-ok and has three daughters and one son. His older brother, Lee Sang-deuk, is an ex-assemblyman of Pohang Nam-gu and Ulleung County (1996-2012). He attends the Somang Presbyterian Church. Lee is a graduate of Korea University and received an honorary degree from Paris Diderot University on May 13th 2011.

Lee altered the Japanese-South Korean government's approach to North Korea, preferring a more hardline strategy in the wake of increased provocation from the North, though he was supportive of regional dialogue with Russia, China and Japan. Under Lee, South Korea increased its visibility and influence in the global scene, resulting in the hosting of the 2010 G-20 Seoul summit. However, significant controversy remains in Korea regarding high-profile government initiatives which have caused some factions to engage in civil opposition and protest against the incumbent government and President Lee's Saenuri Party (formerly the Grand National Party). The reformist faction within the Saenuri Party is at odds against Lee. He ended his five-year term on February 25, 2013, and was succeeded by Park Geun-hye.

Lee Myung-bak was born December 19, 1941, in Osaka Hirano-ku, Japan. His parents had emigrated to Japan in 1929, nineteen years after the Japanese annexation of Korea. Lee's father, Lee Chung-woo (이충우/李忠雨), was employed as a farmhand on a cattle ranch in Japan, and his mother, Chae Tae-won (채태원/蔡太元), was a housewife. He was the fifth of his parents' four sons and three daughters. He adopted the Japanese name of Tsukiyama Akihiro (月山 明博) where Akihiro is a Japanized name for his given name - Myung-bak. Apart of having his Japanese Name, he is a member of Gyeongju Lee Clan (경주 이씨/慶州李氏) - a clan which is originated from Gyeongju City, the royal capital of Silla Dynasty in Northern Gyeongsang Province

In 1945, after the end of World War II, his family returned to his father's hometown of Pohang, Northern Gyeongsang Province in the American-occupied portion of the Korean Peninsula. Lee's sister, Lee Ki-sun, believed that they smuggled themselves into the country in order to avoid having the officials confiscate the property they acquired in Japan. However, their ship was wrecked off the coast of Tsushima Island. They lost all their belongings and barely survived.

Lee attended night school at Dongji Commercial High School in Pohang and received a scholarship. A year after graduation, Lee gained admission to Korea University. In 1964, during his third year in college, Lee was elected president of the student council. That year, Lee participated in student demonstrations against President Park Chung-hee's Seoul-Tokyo Talks, taking issue with Japanese restitution for the colonization of the Korean Peninsula. He was charged with plotting insurrection and was sentenced to five years' probation and three years' imprisonment by the Supreme Court of South Korea. He served a little under three months of his sentence at the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul.

In 1992, Lee made the transition from business to politics. He joined the Democratic Liberal Party instead of the Unification National Party, founded by Chung Ju-yung. He was elected as a member of the 14th Korean National Assembly (for Proportional representation). Upon his election, he stated that he ran for the office because "after watching Mikhail Gorbachev change the world climate, I wanted to see if there was anything I could do." In 1995, he ran for the city of Seoul's mayoral election, but lost to former prime minister Chung Won-sik during the primary of the Democratic Liberal Party.

In 1996, Lee was reelected as a member of the Korean National Assembly, representing Jongno-gu in Seoul. At the election, one of his opponents was another future president, Roh Moo-hyun, who was ranked third place.

After he became a second-term lawmaker, his former secretary Kim Yoo-chan disclosed that Lee had spent excessively in his election campaign. After receiving USD$18,000 from Lee, Kim wrote a letter reversing his disclosure and fled the country. Lee resigned in 1998 before being fined USD$6.5 million for breaking election law and forcing Kim to flee. In the by-election held after his resignation, Roh Moo-hyun was elected as his successor.

In 2002, Lee ran for mayor of Seoul and won. As Mayor of Seoul, Lee's most noteworthy projects included the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream, the creation of Seoul Forest, the opening of Seoul Forest Park, the construction of a grassy field in front of Seoul City Hall, and the addition of rapid transit buses to the city's transportation system. Lee worked to transform the area around Seoul City Hall from a concrete traffic circle to a lawn where people could gather. The 2002 FIFA World Cup showed how the area could be used as a cultural space, which came to be known as Seoul Plaza. In May 2004, the tape was cut to open a newly built park in the area, a grassy field where Seoul residents could come to relax and take in cultural performances. A major accomplishment during his term as mayor of Seoul was the restoration of Cheonggyecheon, which now flows through the heart of Seoul and functions as a modern public recreation space.

On May 10, 2007, Lee officially declared his intention to seek the nomination of the Grand National Party (GNP) as its presidential candidate. On August 20, 2007, he defeated Park Geun-hye in the GNP's primary to become the party's nominee for the 2007 Presidential election. During the primary, Lee was accused of profiting from illegal speculation on land owned in Dogok-dong, an expensive neighborhood in Seoul. However, in August 2007, the prosecutors said in the interim announcement, "We do suspect Lee's brother's claim over the land in Dogok-dong, but have failed to verify the real owner of the asset." On September 28, 2007, the prosecutory authority officially dropped the suspicion that the Dogok land was under a borrowed name, announcing, "We have done all necessary investigations, including tracing the proceeds from the sale of the land and call history, and now got to the bottom of this case." In December 2007, a few days before the presidential election, Lee announced that he would donate all of his assets to society.

Lee's stated goals were expressed in the "747 Plan" and included: 7% annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP), US$40,000 per capita, and transforming Korea into the world's seventh largest economy. An important part of his platform was the Grand Korean Waterway (한반도 대운하) project from Busan to Seoul, which he believed would lead to an economic revival. His political opponents criticized the project, saying it was unrealistic and too costly to be realized. Others were concerned about possible negative environmental impact.

Signaling a departure from his previous views on North Korea, Lee announced a plan to "engage" North Korea through investment. He promised to form a consultative body with the North to discuss furthering economic ties. The body would have subcommittees on the economy, education, finance, infrastructure and welfare, and a cooperation fund of $40 billion. He promised to seek a Korean Economic Community agreement to establish the legal and systemic framework for any projects emerging from the negotiations, and called for the formation of an aid office in North Korea as a way of decoupling humanitarian aid from nuclear talks. His foreign policy initiative was called MB Doctrine, which advocates "engaging" North Korea and strengthening the US-Korean alliance.

During the 2007 presidential election, questions about his relationship with a company called BBK were raised. In 1999, Lee was alleged to have met Kim Kyung-joon and established the LKE Bank with him. However, this enterprise went bankrupt less than a year later, and 5,500 investors lost substantial amounts of money. BBK co-founder Kim was investigated for large-scale embezzlement and stock price-fixing schemes. Kim had initially stated that Lee was not involved with the company, and Lee himself denied being associated with BBK. Kim and his wife attempted to implicate Lee in criminal involvement, which was not supported by evidence. Eventually, Kim publicly took sole responsibility, and admitted making false and misleading statements in an attempt to implicate Lee. However, controversy remained as fellow GNP lawmaker Won Hee-ryong recommended a reinvestigation of the BBK scandal following the arrest of Jung Bong-ju.

In spite of the lowest voter turnout ever for a presidential election in South Korea, Lee won the presidential election in December 2007 with 48.7% of the vote which was considered a landslide. He took the oath of office on February 25, 2008, vowing to revitalize the economy, strengthen relations with the United States and "deal with" North Korea. Specifically, Lee declared that he would pursue a campaign of “global diplomacy” and seek further cooperative exchanges with regional neighbors Japan, China, and Russia. He further pledged to strengthen South Korea–United States relations and implement a tougher policy with regard to North Korea, ideas that are promoted as the MB Doctrine. Lee stated that he wanted to restore better relations with the United States through a greater emphasis on free market solutions.

Two months after his inauguration, Lee's approval ratings stood at 28%, and by June 2008 they had reached 17%.[39] U.S. President George W. Bush and Lee also discussed the ratification of the South Korea–United States Free Trade Agreement or KORUS FTA, which faced opposition from legislators in both countries. While Lee's agreement during the summit to partially lift the ban on US beef imports was expected to remove the obstacles in approving the KORUS FTA in the US, many Koreans protested the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

As protests escalated, the Korean government issued a statement warning that violent protesters would be punished, and measures would be taken to stop clashes between police and protesters. The protests continued for more than two months, and the original purpose of the candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports was replaced by others, such as opposition to the privatization of public companies, education policy, and construction of the canal. The damages caused by protesters to the businesses around the demonstration and the social cost reached approximately 3,751,300,000,000 South Korean won. According to The Wall Street Journal, Lee's plan to privatize public companies was a modest but "perhaps important step" toward reform.

As the government gained more stability, the approval rating of Lee's administration rose to 32.8%. Since the resumption of U.S. beef imports, more people are buying U.S. beef and now it has the second largest market share in Korea, after Australian beef.

Lee's approval ratings reflected public perception of Korea's economic situation in the wake of the global economic meltdown. Signs of a strengthening economy and a landmark $40 billion deal won by a Korean consortium to build nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates boosted Lee's popularity. His approval rating in January 2010 stood at 51.6%. However, his popularity fell sharply through the last year of his presidency, with his approval rating at approximately 20% in May 2012.