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Polls: Lee Elected President of South Korea


South Koreans have elected as their new president a conservative and former top executive at Hyundai. Exit polls show Lee Myung-bak with an overwhelming victory, in a vote that's seen as a rejection of 10 years of liberal government.

NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul.



MONTAGNE: Hi. Now, this wasn't a surprise, this election of Lee Myung-bak.

SHUSTER: No, it wasn't a surprise at all. In polls for weeks, and indeed, for months, Lee has been leading. But the thing is it was a very crowded field. There were 12 candidates. A couple of them, the smaller candidates, dropped out toward the end, so there were 10 on the ballot today.

And so the size of Lee's victory was a surprise. It's very difficult to get such a large vote given the crowded field. And there were a couple of other very well-known candidates, one other conservative and a liberal as well. So Lee pulled off quite a stunning victory.

MONTAGNE: And that was over 50 percent of the vote, even with several candidates in the field.

SHUSTER: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's a financial scandal hanging over at Lee's head, and there were some dramatic developments in the last days of the campaign. Did this not affect the election?

SHUSTER: No, it didn't at all. It might even have ended up being in Lee's favor. There was - there have been allegations for quite some time, of financial wrongdoing, in connection with Lee's part in the collapse of an investment company some years ago.

And a videotape, over the weekend, surfaced that seemed to implicate Lee - Lee, acknowledging that he was a part of this investment company some years ago. And there was a lot of talk in the media, on television and in the newspapers, here that this might cut into his lead. As it turned out, it didn't have any effect, whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: And what accounts, Mike, for the disaster showing of the chief liberal candidate? He got just something of 26 percent of the vote…

SHUSTER: Roughly that.

MONTAGNE: …and - I mean, liberals have been running the country.

SHUSTER: Exactly, liberal presidents have been in office for the last 10 years. In South Korea, a president can only be elected for one, five-year term. And Chung Dong-young was the chief liberal candidate, running against Lee Myung-bak, and he had been a minister in the Cabinet of the current president, Roh Moo-hyun.

But Roh Moo-hyun has had a very difficult presidency. He came in as a human right's lawyer and was expected to do big things, but he was unable to accomplish much of what he promised. He had a lot of problems implementing economic policy and came to be seen as incompetent in dealing with the economy. Maintaining job growth and controlling inflation have been difficult under Roh Moo-hyun.

And so this leading liberal candidate, Chung Dong-young, was associated with those policies. And people simply wanted to reject the liberals after 10 years in office and try for something new.

MONTAGNE: Well, will Lee's election in this veering somewhat to the right make any difference on Seoul's relations with Pyongyang and the controversy over North Korea's nuclear weapons program? Will that change, basically, foreign policy?

SHUSTER: Well in the past, it would've changed because the conservatives were always against what's known here as the Sunshine Policy, the opening toward North Korea that the last 10 years have seen. But gradually, politics has changed in South Korea, and now Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, has essentially embraced similar policies toward North Korea of the last president Roh Moo-hyun. And it looks like things will roughly stay the same on that score.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Shuster, speaking to us from Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Morning Edition
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.