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Lee Myung-bak on Talk Asia

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(CNN) -- Two months into office as South Korea's President, Lee Myung-bak joins CNN's Anjali Rao on Talk Asia. Below is a transcript of the interview.


Presidnet Lee Myung-bak talked to Anjlai Rao outside the Blue House in Seoul.

Anjali Rao: President Lee, thank you very much indeed for speaking to us on Talk Asia. First of all, since you took office, your country's relations with North Korea have seriously deteriorated. And under your two previous predecessors, things had gone quite smoothly with Pyongyang. Did you expect a rocky road?

Lee Myung-bak: Yes, I don't believe that the inter-Korean relationship has, quote, "deteriorated" since I assumed office. Rather I believe that the relationship between the two Koreas is entering into a new phase -- a time of transition. And so I think that the North Koreans are trying to see what they can build with this, with my new administration. So I would be rather hesitant to use the word 'deteriorate' when talking about the inter-Korean relationship.

AR: It's interesting that you say you don't think it has deteriorated because there certainly seems to be a war of words at the moment between the two sides. Do you eventually subscribe to the idea that the two Koreas should be unified?

LMB: Yes I believe eventually, reunification between the two Koreas will happen. However as to when, I don't think there is anybody here who can accurately predict when that's going to happen. If we look in the past, of course the two Germanys, East and West Germany, reunification for them happened really all of a sudden and very unexpectedly. I believe however, on the Korean peninsula, the situation is rather different. So I believe it will take some time for the two Koreas to be unified again, so before that, until that happens, I believe it's important that we work to maintain peace and stability.

AR: It's been reported that Kim Jong-Il never turns off CNN. That means he may well be watching this program right now. If he is, what would you say to him?

LMB: Yes I've also heard from my sources that Chairman Kim watches and likes CNN very much. If I were have an opportunity to say this, I would tell Chairman Kim that we should work together to bring about genuine peace and prosperity and to make the Korean peninsula truly, into a place that is happy for the people living here. So I believe that we are capable of meeting together and to have a dialogue, heart to heart, and to be really open about it and forthcoming. And again, I believe Chairman Kim is capable of making that very big and important decision, so I will be ready to meet whenever it is possible.

AR: South Korea and the US are allies on many foreign policy issues, including of course, North Korea. You're about to head to Washington. What do you think you can achieve in that relationship, especially given that your predecessor didn't have a great relationship with the White House?

LMB: Including myself, the majority of the Korean people believe in this staunch alliance between Korea and the United States and all of us hope that our traditional alliance will be further strengthened in the future. Through my summit meeting with the Americans, and with President Bush, there will be two very big objectives: one is to restore the traditional alliance between Korea and the United States, and to upgrade this relationship so that it becomes more comprehensive and future-oriented. In particular, the two countries, Korea and the United States, we share common values -- that is, the market economy and democracy.

And so I believe that Korea, working closely together with the United States, we will now take on a more global responsibility and role. For instance, we will work together with the Americans to resolve issues like weapons of mass destruction, issues like preventing and eradicating terrorism, fighting disease and poverty and also protecting the global environment.

AR: You won't have very long to get to know President Bush because his tenure is up in November. Out of the current presidential candidates, who would you like to see as your American counterpart next?

LMB: I believe of the three candidates in the United States presidential elections, I would have to say no matter who becomes the next US president, I believe that each and every one of them has a common thinking, and that is to further develop the traditional relationship with Korea. And I believe that they also share the same thoughts regarding North Korean nuclear issue. I believe that whoever becomes the next US president, I'll be able to share my thoughts with them as well.

AR: Very diplomatic. [LMB: You, what do you think?] Me? Unfortunately, I'm not a diplomat. But I'm also not allowed to say what I think about this particular subject.

AR: On the economic front, you say that you want to raise South Korea's annual GDP to 7% and also to turn this country into one of the top 7 economies in the world, which at this point I have to say, it sounds like a pretty tall order. How are you going to get there?

LMB: Yes my economic plan which I laid out is actually a 10-year plan. I had never intended to achieve this in one or two years. Right now, the global international economic situation is difficult, so our Korean economy is also undergoing a period of difficulty as well. However, we will use this period so as to prepare ourselves for eventual growth in the future. We will prepare ourselves so that we can achieve the 7% growth that I laid out, and in order to achieve that growth, we will try to encourage more corporates to invest into the Korean economy and especially for foreign companies to come to Korea, to invest in Korea's future and its economy.

For this, we'll try to make a very business-friendly environment here in Korea. In order to do that, I gave out specific plans of getting rid of or revising any unnecessary rules and regulations that do not conform to global standards, just like Hong Kong, to make it more conducive for businesses to come into Korea. Also cutting the tax rate for foreign companies doing business here in Korea. And also by doing so, we will be able to convince the Korean companies to increase their investments in their own economy, which will lead to job growth, creating more jobs; this in turn will lead to growth and help us achieve this goal in 10 years' time.

AR: Let's just discuss your family life for a minute if you don't mind. What does your wife think about being first lady?

LMB: My wife, well she has extensive experience, because before becoming the first lady, she was the wife of the CEO of a large conglomerate. So I have very high hopes that she will carry out her job successfully as first lady of the Republic of Korea. I hope that she gives, and I have confidence that she will give comfort to the people, and especially she has a lot of interest, for instance, in child care or taking care of those vulnerable or underprivileged.

AR: You've also got four children and several grandchildren. With everything that you've got going on, how much time do you get to spend just being dad and granddad?

LMB: Back when I was CEO, of course my schedule back then was as hectic as the schedule that I have now as president. However, although I had very little time, I made time to play with my children, to talk to them and so forth. So even now, every weekend I tell my children to bring their children so I can see my children as well as my grandchildren here or elsewhere almost once a week.

Also, I must say, that my grandchildren, they like me so much they always want to come see me so I do see them very often. And it has always been my belief that those who are busy are the ones actually who can find more time to do really important stuff in their life. It is those people with too much time on their hands that in fact don't get anything done for the precious values in their life.

AR: Let's talk about you on a personal level. In your adulthood, you've enjoyed great success and great wealth. But you were born into a very poor family. What do you recall of living under those circumstances?

LMB: Well when I was young, actually not just me, but we were all poor. Korea used to be one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite such ¬circumstances, I was very, very fortunate to be blessed with having parents who always instilled in a spirit of can-do spirit. They always told me that I can do whatever I dreamed of, and they always gave me the confidence that I will succeed in life and I believe it's because of them that I am here today.

My success is owed to my parents and to the spirit of can-do, which always has been one of the models of my life. Yes I used to be poor once, I used to be rich, I used to be a laborer, but I used to be a CEO, so I have a very extensive experience in my life. I think this helps me as I assume and carry out my job as president, to really know what people are thinking on all levels of society and I think that leads to pursuing policies that are very well balanced.

AR: Exactly, because you know, just to sort of broaden it out a little bit for our viewers, you paid your own way through school by doing manual jobs including being a rubbish collector. Eventually you got a job at Hyundai. Twelve years later, you were the CEO of that company. What were those Hyundai days like?

LMB: When I first entered Hyundai as an entry-level employee, I had been sent to prison for my activity working to bring about democracy in Korea. So that is why I was only allowed to enter Hyundai -- which at the time was a very small enterprise, consisting of perhaps hundred or so employees. However, after I entered Hyundai, I really tried my best. I worked extremely hard and the world was my workplace. Day and night, really I tried my very best, I gave it my all. I believe that I became CEO very quickly as you mentioned, but not only myself did I rise up among the ranks, but Hyundai also became what it is today.

AR: While you were at Hyundai, you've managed to earn yourself the nickname "the Bulldozer" for your unflagging work ethic and also for your managerial style. But you seem to expect the same sort of ethic from everybody that surround you -- working people for 14 hours a day, no holidays, why are you such a hard taskmaster?

LMB: Back during the days when I was CEO at Hyundai, that was a time when Korea as a country was poor and underdeveloped. So the necessary thing for us back then was to develop the country as fast as we can. We needed to accomplish what others achieved in 20 years in half that time, like in 10 years, so that required us to put in that many more hours so that we can achieve the necessary objectives.

However, I do not still hold on to such work ethics. But, this is the beginning of my presidency, and during the last decade, there was a prevalent ennui in the civil service in the government sector, and I believe that needs to be reformed and changed. We must change that as well.

AR: Unfortunately, corruption is a huge problem here in South Korea. You yourself have admitted to falsely registering two of your children as employees in a company that you owned to avoid paying taxes and inventing addresses so that your kids could get a better education. However, you were also embroiled in a scandal following your days at Hyundai for which you were totally exonerated. What was it like being the center of such a huge corruption probe at the time?

LMB: We did manage to achieve industrialization as well as democratization, but during this rapid period, yes indeed, there were a lot of side effects. And one of them was corruption, and that transparency was not prevalent in our society. Also it is a fact that in the past, politicians were in collusion with conglomerates here in Korea, which led to many illicit activities as well as a lot of social scandals as well. However, now that I am president, such a culture in politics, as well as the corporate culture, must change.

One of the aims of my administration will be to bring up and upgrade Korea to the global standard. This means not just in politics or in business but throughout society, and that we must be different from the past. So when I leave office in 5 years, we will have a new Korea, a new society here in Korea.

As for the personal and false attacks that were leveled against me during the presidential elections, I am very much determined that in the next presidential elections, such negative campaigns will not be tolerated. Throughout my term as president, I will work very hard so that we can change the election process, so that groundless negative campaigning will not be tolerated at all.

AR: Your image really as, in TIME Magazine's words, a Hero of the Environment. Do you see yourself as such?

LMB: Back in the days when I was CEO, that was an era of industrialization here in Korea, an era of development. And I believe that not only myself, but the entire people of Korea, didn't have the liberty or the luxury of caring for the environment. However, when I was mayor of Seoul, times changed. And I have changed, and I always try to move a step ahead of the times. So back during the days of the mayor, that's when the protecting of the environment became one of the most important topics as it is today.

I believe that I undertook the Cheonggyechon project because I wanted to demonstrate and show the Korean people, not only my personal conviction, but to the people how important it is to protect the environment. And it starts with us. Of course, the issues of global warming, of climate change, these are all issues that are being dealt with, not only by Korea, but around the world, and it is of utmost importance. And that is why I believe that Korea in my administration will make this one of the most important policies in the future.

AR: The Grand Korea Waterway is the cornerstone of your plans. It's an enormous undertaking. Why do presidents always feel the need to put their stamp on things?

LMB: You talked about the Great Canal. First of all, let me just say that this is not just some sort of a campaign pledge issued by a politician. It is not an attempt on my part to leave a stamp. Rather, 15 years ago, immediately following my resignation as CEO of Hyundai and when I was a national assembly man, 15 years ago, this plan I first laid out to the people of Korea. Now, we will of course work so that more people will understand the objective of the Great Canal and the Great Waterway and this process will go on.

But I would like to say that the Great Canal, it is very much related to this era that we're living in nowadays, because we just talked about climate change and the global warming, this all leads to environment problems. This leads to the question of the lack of water; this leads to the issue of the various development projects inland. And so the Great Canal way was a comprehensive plan on my part to tackle all of these problems. Again, this was not some sort of an attempt on my part to leave a politician's footprint as I was president. But rather it is very much closely related to my vision, my economic vision, the environmental situation at the moment.

AR: One of the things which also drives you is your religion. You're an elder in the Presbyterian Church here. In other countries where the head of state is openly spiritual, that does sort of set alarm bells ringing among the electorates because they think that that person will perhaps make decisions based on their faith. How do you make the decisions that you do that affect the people of this country?

LMB: You talk about religion. I believe Korea is one of those very unusual countries in the world where very different types of religious people can live in harmony. Korea is a place, as you know where we have a substantial number of Christians, substantial amount of Buddhists, Catholics and other religions. Even among one family, there might be family members who have different religions and believe in different gods, but they have no trouble living together. So I think in that sense, Korea is a very unusual country, yet it is a model country for religious harmony.

As for me, yes I am an elder at the church, but I never gave a...I was never uncomfortable to other people because of my religion. As for making decisions, important policy decisions, of course if it's very important, and of course when I undergo personal difficulties, I will pray to the god that I believe in personally. But of course when it comes to making decisions and policy decisions, I will engage in very much dialogue and discussion with other people in order to make the necessary decisions.

AR: President, what is your vision for this country? How do you see South Korea changing under your leadership?

LMB: My vision for my country, like I said before, my country has undergone rapid industrialization and development, as well as democratization. And throughout this process, I believe some sort of balance has been lost. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened lately which I believe must be rectified.

My vision for Korea is to improve the quality of life for each individual living here in the Republic of Korea. For those who succeeded in society, we will give them more opportunities to even better their lives. However, the government and the country will take care of the vulnerable and the underprivileged so that they do not feel left out. This will be an opportunity for the government to provide opportunities for the underprivileged so that our society will be more caring, so that we will share with each other, so that it will become more balanced here in Korea.


As for the inter-Korea relationship, I hope that in the future, as we reunify, I hope, I sincerely hope the people of North Korea will also be able to enjoy personal dignity, freedom and genuine happiness. And for this, I hope we will be able to assist and help North Korea achieve economic development, which is crucial for them. And also, I hope that as the two Koreas become one, our nation will be able to help and assist other countries in need, just as we received help from other countries five decades ago.

AR: President Lee, I really appreciate the time that you've taken to spend with us today. [LMB: Thank you, my pleasure.] Thank you very much. Thank you. And that concludes this edition of Talk Asia, thank you for being with me, Anjali Rao, and my guest today, the President of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak. I'll see you again on the next Talk Asia. Bye-bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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