Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor October 12, 2011

Here are some things South Korean President Lee Myung-bak probably will not dwell on when he addresses a joint session of Congress on Thursday afternoon:

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

●How U.S. fighter jets inadvertently killed two of his siblings as the jets hunted communist infiltrators in his village during the Korean War;

●How he used to fill his belly at the water fountain every day at school, because his family was too poor to provide him lunch;

●How he paid his way through college by rising each day at 4 a.m. to cart garbage from the street market where his mother eked out a living selling fruit;

●How he almost never saw his four children, missing their births and never once taking a family vacation as he devoted his life to his job.

It’s not that any of that is secret; it’s all in his autobiography, which will be published in English next month. But Lee may feel it’s not relevant to his likely themes: thanking America for its help defending freedom during the Korean War and since, and sketching the potential for future cooperation.

In some ways, though, Lee’s life story might tell members of Congress more about South Korea’s breathtaking progress over the past 60 years — and about anxieties over where it is headed now.

Like his country, Lee traced an improbable, driven path from desperate poverty to surprised prosperity. He wasn’t meant to go to college; his family expected to devote all its resources, including whatever Lee could scrape up, to further his older brother’s career.

But Lee defied the odds and the rules of tradition, graduated and joined an unknown little construction company called Hyundai, which he proceeded to help build from 90 employees to 170,000. He retired in 1992 and entered politics, winning election as mayor of Seoul and then, in 2007, as president.

His autobiography is infused with a sense of mission that, as he told me and The Post’s Chico Harlan in an interview in the presidential Blue House on Monday, he sees as typical of his nation.

“Sacrifice — this is what makes our mosaic so beautiful and rich,” he writes in his memoir. “All we had back then were a desperate yearning to live a better life and a fierce sense of urgency.”

Today South Korea is in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of 34 developed nations. Its navy combats piracy off the coast of Saudi Arabia, its army fights the Taliban in Afghanistan, its Peace Corps fights malaria in Africa. Its conglomerates, such as Hyundai and Samsung, and its pop culture and technological innovation set the pace throughout Asia and the world.

Yet with the basic goals of Lee’s generation achieved, many younger Koreans seem uncertain of what comes next. Public opinion polls show high levels of anxiety: about rising inequality and persistent joblessness, especially for college graduates; about a hyper-competitive education system that drives parents to spend huge sums on after-school tutoring; about a world-leading suicide rate; about squabbling politicians who don’t seem to grapple with the country’s real problems.

Lee’s approval rating hovers around 30 percent, which is higher than his opposition’s. “Politics is in disrepute,” a senior diplomat told me. “There is a lack of compromise, there is scoring points instead of doing the hard things for the country — exactly as in the U.S.”

South Korea’s birth rate of barely one child per woman, among the world’s lowest, combined with the happier news of increasing longevity puts this country on its way to becoming a very old society. Today, according to OECD statistics, about 11 percent of South Korea’s 48 million people are 65 or older; two decades from now, a quarter will be that old. And then the population will begin to shrink.

Aging populations and the stresses of globalization and modernity are familiar to many developed nations. But maybe because they seem to have emerged before South Korea could fully appreciate its accomplishment, they are shaded differently here.

Lee has tried to set new ambitions for South Korea as a “global, mature country” with a devotion to green energy and other innovation. He told me that, in a still-divided land with almost no natural resources, South Koreans must — and, he believes, will — sustain the sense of mission that drove him.

“Of course we need love and spending time with family, but we cannot lose that tension or sense of urgency,” he said.

But Lee, 69, is limited by South Korea’s constitution to one five-year term, and his successor will be chosen in about 14 months. His time to shape the nation is fast elapsing.

fredhiatt@washpost.com