Ex-Hyundai CEO wins S. Korea election

Other News Materials 19 December 2007 17:47 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Lee Myung-bak won South Korea's presidential election Wednesday by a landslide as voters overlooked fraud allegations in hopes the former Hyundai CEO will revive the economy.

Lee of the conservative Grand National Party claimed victory in a nationally televised news conference, after his two main rivals both conceded defeat following partial election returns showing him winning nearly double the votes of his closest competitor.

"Today, the people gave me absolute support. I'm well aware of the people's wishes," Lee said. "I will serve the people in a very humble way. According to the people's wishes, I will save the nation's economy that faces a crisis."

The National Election Commission said Lee had 47.1 percent of the vote and liberal Chung Dong-young was a distant second at 27.3 percent, with 62.9 percent of ballots counted.

The office of President Roh Moo-hyun congratulated Lee on his win.

"We respect the people's choice shown in this election," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said in a statement.

Lee has pledged to take a more critical view of Seoul's engagement with rival North Korea and seek closer U.S. ties. Efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions stand at a critical juncture, with the communist country set to disclose all its programs for eventual dismantlement by a year-end deadline.

Just days before the vote, the parliament voted to authorize an independent counsel investigation into Lee in a stock manipulation case where prosecutors had already cleared him of wrongdoing. The counsel is to complete the probe before the Feb. 25 inauguration, and Lee has said he would step aside from the presidency if found at fault.

Hundreds of supporters watching results on a giant TV in front of the Grand National Party's headquarters burst into song Wednesday evening as Lee's apparent victory was announced.

"I am very happy and it is like retaking democracy after a decade" of liberal rule, said Park Mi-won, a housewife in her 50s.

Unlike previous elections dominated by issues like security policy with rival North Korea or relations with the United States, this year voters were focused on economic matters due to concern over sky-high real estate prices, soaring unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his get-the-job-done business acumen, Lee's support has been bolstered due to dissatisfaction over the five-year term of liberal President Roh, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

In 2002, Roh was elected after pledging not to "kowtow" to the U.S. while also continuing the rapprochement with the North fostered by his predecessor and fellow liberal Kim Dae-jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with Pyongyang.

Lee has made the economy central to his campaign, pledging to raise annual growth to 7 percent, double the country's per capita income to US$40,000 and lift South Korea to among the world's top seven economies - known as his "747" pledge.

Lee first gained prominence as head of Hyundai's construction unit that symbolized South Korea's meteoric economic rise in the 1960-70s. As Seoul mayor from 2002-2006, he made his mark by opening up a long-paved-over stream to create a new landmark in the capital that also earned him environmental credibility.

Lee's march to the presidency hit a bump this week when a video was released by his liberal rivals showing him saying in 2000 that he founded a firm implicated in fraud. Although he had admitted the same in printed interviews, the video put the words directly into his mouth.

The case revolves around a Korean-American former business associate of Lee's who faces charges for stock manipulation, embezzlement and forgery after his extradition from the U.S., where he allegedly fled with millions of dollars (euros).

Lee has said the taped comments were taken out of context and denied the allegations.

Analysts say the independent counsel investigation will hound Lee after the election as he would be the country's first president-elect to undergo a criminal probe. By South Korean law, a president-elect can be prosecuted but receives immunity from most criminal lawsuits after inauguration.