“The poverty that stuck on my family like an oyster shell never went away even after I turned 20,” Lee once recollected.
Lee Myung-bak was born on Dec. 19, 1941 in Osaka, Japan, as the fifth child of a farm worker on a cattle ranch. Lee’s parents had emigrated to Japan during Japanese colonial rule of Korea. After World War II ended in 1945, his family returned to his father’s hometown Pohang in South Gyeongsang Province.
Lee worked through elementary and middle schools, selling odds and ends in the market with his mother. He continued to work in the day as he attended night classes at Dongji Commercial High School in Pohang on a full scholarship.
His family moved to Seoul in December 1959 to support his elder brother who went to college. Because the single room his family rented was too small, Lee lived in a shelter for day laborers and took up whatever manual labor job he could find.
Lee has said that the first major transition in his life came when he entered college.
A year after graduation from high school, Lee gained admission to Korea University’s department of business administration.
“I thought I could at least be a college dropout if I pass the entrance exam, even if I don’t go to school,” he said later.
While attending college, he worked as a sweeper and garbage collector in a market to pay his tuition fees.
In his third year at college, Lee ran for student president of the college of business administration hoping to reshape his introverted character and got elected. He had been deeply impressed by Korea University students’ protests against dictatorship the year before he entered college which led to the resignation of President Syngman Rhee.
As the student president, Lee led the demonstrations against Korea’s planned normalization of diplomatic ties with Japan in 1964, and was jailed for six months on charges of instigating insurrection.
Lee’s life took its second major transition as he entered Hyundai Engineering & Construction.
After Lee graduated from university, his record as a student activist kept him from getting employed.
When he applied for a job at Hyundai E&C, which was then a much smaller company, and took a written test he was told to speak with the human resources manager.
The manager said his test results were excellent, but he couldn’t be hired because of his past involvement in student activism.
Lee came home and wrote a letter addressed to then-President Park Chung-hee about his pure intentions and patriotism in the demonstrations, criticizing the government for barring his pursuit of a career.
The presidential aide for civil affairs called a few days later, met Lee and suggested he join a state-run company or go abroad to study.
Lee declined the proposal, saying, “If the nation blocks a young man from trying to survive on his own, it would be indebted to him forever.”
After a while, Lee was told by Hyundai E&C he had a job with them.
He devoted himself to the company, climbing his way to the top in just 12 years. He made headlines for becoming a CEO at the age of 35 in 1977.
As CEO, he won major construction deals around the world from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South America, building personal ties with the leaders of many countries.
Lee left Hyundai E&C in January 1992 by stepping down from his post as chairman.
He then entered politics as a proportionate legislator of the Democratic Liberal Party in the 14th National Assembly in 1992.
In 1995, he lost in the intra-party competition for the conservative party’s candidacy for Seoul mayor.
In the parliamentary elections in 1996, Lee won in the Seoul’s Jongno-gu constituency, but soon gave up his parliamentary seat for violation of election law and fled to the U.S.
He made a successful comeback to politics by getting elected as the Seoul mayor in July 2002.
By adopting corporate-style management in public administration, Lee pushed ahead with the restoration of the Cheonggye Stream and the overhaul of the city’s complicated bus system.
The two projects turned out to be a huge success, greatly helping him win the presidential elections in 2007.
He assumed office as the president in February 2008, launching a center, pragmatist administration with a slew of reform initiatives.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com)