Lee Wins Presidency in South Korea

Lee Myung-bak, South Korea's first corporate executive to be elected president, celebrates in Seoul.
Lee Myung-bak, South Korea's first corporate executive to be elected president, celebrates in Seoul. (By Lee Jin-man -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 20, 2007

SEOUL, Dec. 19 -- Lee Myung-bak, a can-do former construction boss nicknamed "the Bulldozer," won a landslide victory Wednesday in the South Korean presidential election.

Lee's margin of victory, the largest since democratic presidential elections began here 20 years ago, decisively ended a decade of rule by Presidents Kim Dae-jung and then Roh Moo-hyun, former dissidents who had focused on reconciliation with North Korea.

The communist North, which has agreed in recent months to disable its nuclear facilities, was barely an issue in this presidential campaign. Similarly, allegations of corruption against Lee, which surfaced noisily over the weekend, left voters unmoved.

"No one is absolutely clean when you strip-search successful and wealthy businessmen in Korea," said Ahn Jae-woo, 54, an insurance executive who voted for Lee early today before going Christmas shopping with his family in a Seoul mall. "This election is not about ethical issues, it's about who is really capable of making Korea prosperous."

South Korea's export-driven economy has drifted a bit in recent years, and in the campaign, Lee persuasively argued that he alone was qualified to fix it.

"I know what you want so well," he told the nation Wednesday night, after his opponents had conceded. "I will revive Korea's economy at the bidding of the people. I will unify our society, which has been torn apart."

Having held a commanding leading in opinion polls for months, Lee won with 48.7 percent of the vote, nearly double the 26.2 percent garnered by his closest competitor, Chung Dong-young.

In his broadly based win, Lee appeared to have drawn almost equally from young and older voters, gaining strong support from rural and urban areas alike. He also did well among voters who described themselves as progressives and had voted in the past for Kim and Roh.

Lee is the first corporate executive to be elected president, and his campaign pledges were spreadsheet-specific.

A decade of his pro-business, pro-American policies, Lee vowed, would push national economic growth to 7 percent a year, double per-capita income to $40,000 and catapult South Korea from 13th to seventh among the world's largest economies.

Lee, a former mayor of Seoul who celebrated his 66th birthday on election day, was considerably less precise about how he might accomplish all this, especially since he can serve only one five-year term as president.

The lopsided election made it clear that voters here are willing to look beyond the allegations of corruption that have swirled for months around Lee and his corporate past.

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