Bulldozer in the Blue House

Hours after former Hyundai chief executive officer Lee Myung-bak won a landslide election as president of South Korea last week, the verdict on the new man in the Blue House (the presidential palace in Seoul) was near-unanimous in Washington and Tokyo: Lee — known as “the bulldozer” for his hard-driving style as mayor of Seoul and business dynamo — was an upgrade over outgoing President Roh-Moo-hyun.

After more than a generation of presidents who were either career politicians or retired generals, South Korea for the first time turned to a product of the corporate world as its leader. Raised by a poor Christian family, Lee earned money for commercial high school and Korea University as a popcorn salesman and garbage collector. Starting at an entry level job in Hyundai Construction and Engineering, he rose to become its CEO at age 36, took a company that had 90 employees when he started there to one with 160,000 when he retired 27 years later to go into politics.

Like Mitt Romney, he is a product of the corporate world who became a multi-millionaire before running for office. Like Mike Huckabee, Lee connects with lower-income and blue collar voters by recalling and never forgetting his humble origins. And he even has a bit of the television star image of Fred Thompson: a popular Korean TV series in the 1990’s, Time of Ambition, portrayed Lee as a hero.

In short, were Lee an American politician, he would almost surely be a conservative Republican. And, in the mold of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the new South Korean President has made no secret of his admiration for America and his desire to be different from a predecessor who more ofthen than not was chilly toward George W. Bush’s White House.

As Han Sung-joo, former South Korean ambassador to the U.S. told the New York Times after Lee’s election, “Lee Myung-bak has positive views of the United States and is in general very pragmatic, not ideological like the incumbent president [Roh]. So his policy toward the United States but also North Korea should be very pragmatic.”

After ten years of two South Korean presidents who increasingly reached out to the Communist North Koreans, it would be as difficult for the conservative Lee to undo this “Sunshine Policy” as it would for an American President to end recognition of Beijing and restore it to Taipai. However, given his background of reading balance sheets and determining the bottom line, Lee would probably condition aid to North Korea on the grounds of reform (Roh and former President Kim Dae Jung gave aide to the Kim Jong-Il government in Pyongyang with “no strings attached,” political enemies said).

In an interview with the Washington Post in October, candidate Lee said that he “would like to help the government of Kim Jong-Ill follow the reform example of China and Vietnam.”

Underscoring what is very likely to be a more pragmatic approach to North Korea, the new President of South Korea is likely to name as his prime minister Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late South Korean military strongman Park Chung-hee. Miss Park, who lost both her father and mother to assassin’s bullets in the 1970’s, was narrowly defeated for the nomination for President of the conservative Grand National Party by Lee. Rather than going away mad — a common occurrence in South Korean politics among defeated candidates — Miss Park graciously embraced Lee and campaigned hard for him in the general election. She once hailed President Bush for describing the North Korean regime as “evil.” Although she accepts the “sunshine policy” of dealing with Pyongyang, Park also told the Financial Times that “we have to do it in a principled way and there are certain red lines that must not be crossed.”

Any discussion of South Korean politics inevitably gets around to relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which have a long and turbulent history. President-elect Lee himself was arrested in 1964 for protesting talks between his country and Japan. A journalist-colleague of mine from Tokyo recalled how “for the past ten years, Japan and the Republic of Korea’s relations had gotten seriously damage, especially in the fields of politics, security, and grass-roots emotion. But it’s all based on the strong anti-Japanese — and also anti-American emotion — instigated by Roh’s Administration.” (In fairness, during a visit to the National Press Club in Washington earlier this year, former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung told me how the repeated visits of recent Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni shrine to Japanese warriors — which included war dead from World War II — was insulting and insensitive to his country, which was occupied by the Japanese during the war).

At the time, Kim praised newly-minted Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda for promising not to visit Yasukuni and cited his own good relationship with Fukuda, who had just been picked in September of this year by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The key to a strong and better relationship between Japan and Korea may lie here, in two leaders who have assumed power only three months apart.

Like Korea’s Lee, Japan’s Fukuda was in private business (the oil industry) before entering politics. Shortly after Lee’s election, Fukuda announced he would attend Lee’s inauguration in Seoul. My journalist friend, who is well-acquainted with the Fukuda government, told me he feels “the upcoming trend between Tokyo and Seoul will show more stable relations in a realistic manner.”

And that is something that could change the politics of Southast Asia in a most dramatic way.