Lee Myung-bak Wants South Korea to Be the Center

By B. J. Lee

For years now, South Korea has been known internationally for its blazing economy—but not much else. President Lee Myung-bak plans to use the economic crisis to change that. As China rises and the U.S. stagnates, Lee aims to exploit the gap between them, in the process transforming South Korea from a self-involved Asian tiger into a respected global power that can mediate between rich and poor nations. It's a bold vision, and one that, if successful, will move his country "away from the periphery of Asia," as Lee put it recently, "and into the center of the world."

None of this would be possible if not for Lee's shrewd handling of the economic downturn. Early on, his country was battered like everyone else, but many of South Korea's current leaders are veterans of the 1998 Asian crisis, and knew how to manage a free fall. Lee's team immediately guaranteed bank debt and secured foreign reserves, among other steps; as a result, South Korea will grow 4.4 percent this year, faster than any other wealthy country.

Lee is now leveraging that success on the diplomatic front. While many other leaders have succumbed to protectionist pressures, he wants to revive a slew of global free-trade deals. At the same time, he's establishing South Korea as a leader in the fight against climate change, agreeing to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2020—one of the most aggressive targets in the world. South Korean firms made big gains in global market share in 2009 thanks to a weak currency, and Lee is also using this to his advantage, positioning his country as a democratic alternative to China. This is particularly attractive to other Asian countries that want a less harsh partner than Beijing. Vietnam, for instance, is now sending civil servants to Seoul to learn how to develop strategic industries like steel. And officials from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan regularly visit South Korea for training in economic and business management.

South Korea is doing more than just exchanging diplomats. Last year it officially became the first former recipient of international aid to graduate to the donor ranks, sending $1 billion to poor countries. It plans to triple that sum within five years. Likewise, it will more than double its deployment of peacekeeping troops to 10 global hot spots, including Pakistan.

Partly as recognition of these successes, Seoul was chosen to host the next G20 summit, in November, and Lee plans to use it as a coming-out party of sorts. As his opponents are quick to point out, a three-night conference will not change the fate of the nation. But it may be a lesson to smaller, poorer countries that South Korea is an example worth following.