South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who rose from childhood poverty to the top office, yesterday donated 33.1 billion won (US$26 million) to a fund for needy students.
“Today is a wonderful and joyous day,” Lee said in a statement after handing over more than 80 percent of his total wealth to a foundation in observance of an election campaign pledge.
Lee, who worked part-time at manual jobs to put himself through school and university, said he would never forget the people — mostly poor themselves — “who offered a hand to a poor boy during those trying times.”
“And I know that the best way for me to pay back such kindness is to give back to society what I earned,” he said.
Presidential officials described the donation as “unprecedented in the history of politics.”
Lee, 67, is a former construction executive and the first South Korean president from a business background.
He said the scholarship foundation reflects his long-time hope that his wealth should be used to help “those who really need it.”
“I am glad that today I am able to keep the promise,” he added, saying his wife and four children supported his decision.
“Without the miraculous achievements made by the people of this great country, a boy from a devastatingly poor family would have never become its president,” he said.
Since he took office in February last year, Lee has also donated his monthly presidential salary to low-income households.
He said he hoped yesterday’s gift would kick-start a donation campaign by others: “I yearn for this country to be a country where we care for one another.”
Song Jeong-ho, a lawyer who will head the foundation, said it would offer about 90 million won every month based on its income from the donated assets.
“The president’s donation embodies his firm belief that no one should be prevented from learning because of money and that poverty should not be handed down generation after generation,” Song said.
The announcement follows a survey that showed about 70 percent of respondents think he has adopted policies favoring high-income earners and conglomerates.