South Korean president Lee’s rags-to-riches account of his life within the byzantine world of that nation’s business and politics.
At the end of the Korean War, both South Korea and 12-year-old Lee were mired in desperate poverty. “Poverty,” writes Lee, “clung to my family like a leech.” Yet a few decades later South Korea became a world economic power and Lee, at age 35, the president and CEO of South Korea’s most powerful family-owned conglomerate (or chaebol), Hyundai. Lee’s story of his rise is one of absolute commitment to sacrifice and hard work—not uncommon attributes of his generation. He takes readers inside Hyundai, recounting tales of business ventures around the world. He tells of his often-strained relations with Hyundai founder and patriarch, Chung Ju-yung, of internecine battles with other chaebol such as Samsung and of precarious dealings with the military dictatorship that ran South Korea well into the 1980s. While the head of Hyundai, Lee was arrested and interrogated by the authorities. Throughout, the author has little to say about South Korea’s dramatic transition to democracy except that he supported it. He says nothing of the seminal role the struggles of Hyundai-connected labor unions played in that transition. As for his role in politics, which he began after leaving Hyundai in 1991, Lee displayed the same determination that led him to the top of the car manufacturer. Here too, though, there is a vagueness that may leave Western readers baffled. The political part of his story was added to the original version of this book published in 1995, and it has a hurried quality to it. Events unfold in a chronologically haphazard manner, and key elements of South Korean politics such as the role of regionalism and the deep power of political parties are mentioned but left unexplained. While Lee does offer a detailed study of his successful run as mayor of Seoul, which literally transformed the city, he remains largely silent on his rise to the presidency.
Intermittently engaging but ultimately disappointing and incomplete.