When Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated as the 10th president of South Korea in February 2008, it was an astonishing outcome for a poor boy from Pohang, whose No. 1 dream had been simply to get a job.
Lee’s life journey is a literal rags-to-riches story. He has made a political journey, too, from a student radical imprisoned for his activism to a conservative head of state.
In between, the 69-year-old was instrumental in helping to build one of South Korea’s most famous companies. During an exclusive interview with NPR at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, he draws parallels between his own life and the changes South Korea has seen.
Taught Never To Seek Handouts
The fifth of seven children born to a poor farmer, Lee recalls his childhood in the country’s southeast as one of “raw and painful” poverty. Just finding food was a daily struggle.
“Some days we would have to chase away our hunger by drinking a lot of water, which only exacerbated the situation,” says Lee, who was quick to point out that his family’s situation was not uncommon. “I must say, the entire country was very poor back then. But my family was, even compared to others, we were particularly very poor.”
Lee’s autobiography, The Uncharted Path, has just been released in the U.S. In it, he describes how as a child, his main meals were often the dregs left behind after brewing rice alcohol, which left him drunk.
Despite their poverty, Lee’s parents — particularly his mother — instilled strong Christian values in him, which later played into his political philosophy.
“The only difference between our family and that of my neighbor was the fact that the parents in my neighboring family, they went out to the streets, asking for handouts,” he says. “Whereas my parents, they wanted us to go out there and work and earn our living instead of trying to have it easy by asking people for free handouts.”
To this end, Lee worked to put himself through school, selling homemade matches and rice wrapped in seaweed. In his autobiography, he writes that he wore his school uniform at all times, since he did not possess any other clothing.
By sixth grade, he writes there were few jobs he hadn’t done. He paid for his university education by hauling garbage, which he says was “one of the hardest and most grueling jobs I did in my life.”
Success In Business, Then Politics
In 1964, Lee helped organize huge student demonstrations sparked by outrage at the government’s normalization of relations with Japan. The government declared martial law, and Lee was sentenced to two years in prison, the term being suspended for three years.
Lee was released after three months, and it’s a measure of how hard his life was that he seemed to enjoy prison, where he could read and think, without being hungry. In his autobiography, he described it as a “time of renewal, both physical and spiritual.”
“When I was a young man, my No. 1 hope was to get a job. I joined a small company called Hyundai — back then it was a very tiny company. And I knew that having a job was about not just earning money, but it was also about fulfilling a man’s dignity, it’s about gaining happiness,” he says.
Lee spent 27 years at the company, where at 35, he became the youngest-ever chief executive officer of Hyundai Construction. There, he was responsible for winning Korea’s first overseas contract, building a road in Thailand. This was symbolically important: the first step toward building Hyundai into the massive international conglomerate it is today.
Other Korean companies followed Hyundai’s lead, becoming the powerful conglomerates that now drive the country’s economy.
At Hyundai, he was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his dogged determination and focus, traits that served him well when he entered politics in 2002, becoming the mayor of Seoul.
His biggest success as mayor was the much-acclaimed Cheonggyecheon urban renewal project, the restoration of the Cheonggye stream, which had been covered with concrete. As president, though, his policies have made him unpopular politically.
A Third Act?
But his personal story of triumph over adversity reflects that of South Korea, the developing country that pulled itself into the developed world by its bootstraps, which President Obama noted during Lee’s state visit to the United States in October.
“Your life story, from crushing poverty to the presidency, is an inspiration,” Obama told Lee during the state banquet. “Your success — Korea’s success — speaks to the truth that with education and hard work, anything is possible.”
Lee recognizes the clear parallels between his own story and his country’s success.
“I used to be a boy who had to stand in line when an American missionary came to visit my village to hand out used clothes,” he tells NPR. “And that little boy who used to stand in line is now president of a country [that] once used to receive aid from others [and] is now able to provide help to other countries.”
Lee has slightly more than a year left in office. As for what he’ll do afterward, he has been taking counsel from Bill Gates. Lee says he has already donated most of his wealth to his own charitable foundation and spent some time doing voluntary work in Ethiopia to gain an understanding of the needs of poorer African countries. After president, his next act could be as philanthropist. It seems the uncharted path of “the poor boy from Pohang” is not over yet.