Sep 20, 2011
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, H.E. Mr. Paul Volcker, The Honorable Dr. Kissinger, Secretary-General Ban, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to share with you my personal story. Back in 1945 when my country gained independence after decades of colonization, our biggest challenge was poverty. It was the kind of material poverty that stripped a man of his dignity. When I was a young boy, my country used to be one of the poorest countries in the world. And my family was much poorer than the rest.
So, every since I was a little boy I worked hard. I had to. And there were many days when I had to satisfy my hunger by filling myself with nothing but water. We lived in shanties where the poorest came to live. Here, all day long, we heard people fighting, children crying and saw the sick dying. Poverty was all around me. I experienced poverty and realized that it can crush a human being. I knew at an early age that poverty is the worst form of violence. I know that it can even kill a human soul. This was Korea sixty years ago.
After graduating from junior high school, I worked during the day and attended night school to continue my studies. After graduating from night school, I became a day-laborer, scrapping by one day at a time. I remember my dream at that time was to get a job so that I would have a place to go when I got up every morning. I didn’t care how much I got paid. All I wanted was a regular job. I knew then how important it is to be able to work, to have a job. I knew then that the best welfare of all is providing a job. Every day was a struggle so attending college was out of the question. Nonetheless, I held onto that dream and one day I was given a chance. Many people, many of them whom I barely knew, helped me realize my dream. A shop owner lent me used books and kind-hearted shop keepers at the morning market gave me a job as a garbage collector. Were it not for these people’s generosity, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college, let alone graduate.
Despite being poor, I received good education. And education helped me escape poverty. Education is the only way and the best way to prevent that vicious cycle of poverty from being handed down generation after generation. My life is a testament. Throughout all the pain and let-downs, I never let go of my belief in the importance of receiving good education. Neither did my parents. To them, being poor was never an excuse to deny their children their right to quality education. They did all that they could to provide education for their children. It wasn’t just my parents though. Almost all parents in Korea who lived through wars and poverty thought likewise. And this is what made Korea. To this day, parents in Korea do not hesitate when investing in their children’s education.
While college life was never easy, I also began to learn about and become aware of values that would shape the rest of my life. I began to look beyond my present circumstances. I started to seriously think about problems that weren’t just about me or my family. Ideals such as democracy, freedom and human dignity started to bud within me.
These stirrings in my mind propelled me into action. During the mid-1960s I became a student leader leading demonstrations calling for democracy and the end to dictatorship. I was caught and imprisoned for my activities. Through my participation in the democracy movement, I became aware of the importance of democracy, human dignity and freedom. For a young man whose life was solely about survival up until then, this was an awakening, a leap into an entirely new world.
Reality remained harsh for ordinary Koreans. Korea’s per capita GDP was approximately 80 US dollars at the time. Unemployed men and women roamed the streets all day looking for work. Unable to take care of themselves or their families, they had little hope for the future. I knew what poverty could do to a man; I feared that without economic prosperity none of us would have any hope for the future.
So, as soon as I was released from prison, I decided to get a job at a small private construction company. This company had less than one hundred employees when I first joined. However, it later evolved into a global conglomerate with subsidiaries in auto, shipbuilding and construction, among others. As its youngest-ever CEO, I traveled far and wide, through scorching deserts, freezing tundra and thick jungles building bridges, plants and factories. It was a learning experience where I developed a global mind.
Of course, I was able to finally escape poverty. But more importantly, I was able to help my country escape poverty. It was a privilege to be able to take part in this epic journey. I consider my life as a blessing and I am deeply proud of my people and what they managed to achieve. I have always been grateful to my country for giving me this opportunity and to my fellow Koreans for making all this happen. I love my people and I know I owe them a great deal.
This is why I founded the “Lee & Kim Foundation” named after myself and my wife. I promised myself that I would pay back what I owed my people. I donated almost my entire wealth to this foundation which is focused, among other things, on providing scholarships to children who are going through hard times like I did more than fifty years ago. I hope this foundation will give people hope and a chance to realize their dreams. No child should have to give up getting a good education simply because they have no money.
Ladies and gentlemen,
However intense it may have been, our walk towards eradicating poverty was not just about attaining material wealth or being well-off. It was also a struggle to attain something else : human dignity.
Last year, Korea was host to the G-20 Summit. It was an occasion to remind ourselves that the miracle that happened in Korea can and must be repeated elsewhere. We believe it is our responsibility to share with our developing partners around the world what we learned. In 2009 when the global economy was on the brink and all countries were trying desperately to overcome the crisis, Korea joined the OECD development assistance committee. By doing so, out of all the countries that gained independence following the Second World War, Korea became the only country to become a donor country from that of a recipient country. A boy who once received aid from others is standing before you as the president of a country that is now able to give to others.
From Africa to Asia, we have thousands of Korean volunteers overseas helping those in need. As I’ve said, I know from personal experience what it’s like to receive from others. I understand what one has to go through. This is why I always insist that Korea must become a donor country with a heart. This is why I always remind our people that whenever we give, we must do so with sincerity and humility. We must respect the culture and custom of the one who is receiving our help. I know this matters; I was once on the other end.
The theme of last year’s G-20 Summit was “Shared growth beyond the Crisis”. Under this theme, one of the agenda items was development which we proposed. We will provide financial assistance but we will also help our developing partners attain self-sustainability so that they themselves can develop their growth potentials.
Last July I visited Ethiopia. While I was there, I did volunteer work for two days in villages that were considered the poorest in the country. Poverty was raw and severe. The reason why I decided to volunteer was so that I could experience first-hand what they were going through and learn how we can help them.
Today, we are facing a new kind of poverty. Globalization and information technology has brought us closer together and made life more enjoyable to millions. However, it has also worsened polarization within a country. Too many of our young men and women are denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams because they can’t get a decent job. Too many families are worried if more bad news is in store. Korea is faced with the same problems.
For these reasons, I proposed a solution to this new problem which we call “eco-systemic development.” It is a new vision for the future where we all strive towards a “win-win” society. It is a society where every member contributes and cooperates with one another. From a narrow perspective, certain relationships within our society may seem like a “zero-sum” relationship. However, when looked at from a wider perspective, the same relationship may very well be mutually complimentary. It’s like in the natural world where there exists fierce competition also cooperation that benefits all parties. Such diversity is what achieves equilibrium and co-prosperity. I strongly believe that we must all take part. The government alone can only do so much. Every actor must take part, contribute and work together. This is the essence of an evolving market economy, an evolving social norm that suits the needs of our time.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Korea remains the only divided country in the world and the last remnant of the Cold War. The two Koreas share the same history, language and customs.
My dream is to have the 70 million Koreans living on the peninsula enjoy real freedom and real happiness. A unified Korea is a Korea that will be a friend to its neighbors and a friend to the world. Such a Korea will promote peace and prosperity to the region and beyond.
And ladies and gentlemen, this is my mission, my calling as president and I intend to fulfill that role of laying the foundation for a peaceful peninsula.
The United States has played a pivotal role in making Korea become what it is today. It helped us keep the peace and our way of life, our freedom and our prosperity. Korea’s alliance with the United States has allowed us to attain prosperity and we have also become a truly democratic state. I am proud of this fact.
Today, Korea has grown strong enough to enter into a free trade agreement with the United States, thereby contributing to mutual prosperity. I am proud of this too.
The relationship between Korea and the United States is excellent. Our relationship is one based on shared visions and common values. We are global partners, working shoulder to shoulder in global affairs that affect us all. I am proud of this. I hope you will be proud to have a friend like Korea.
Korea will remain a friend to all peace-loving nations around the world. Tonight’s award will only encourage me to do my part in this endeavor.
I wish the very best to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and I thank you all once again. Thank you.