About 45,000 people are expected to watch Lee become president [Reuters]

Lee Myung-bak is set to be sworn in as South Korea's new president just days after being cleared of fraud charges.

The country's new leader, who won a landslide election victory in December, has promised to foster closer ties with the United States, a policy that has already unsettled South Korea's neighbour, China.

In video


South Korea prepares for the "Bulldozer"

Lee will officially become president at a ceremony in front of an estimated 45000 people in the South Korean capital, Seoul on Monday.

An independent investigation into whether Lee colluded in a stock price manipulation case in 2001 cleared the president-elect of all charges on Thursday - charges he always denied.

The affair had cast a shadow over Lee's election in which he achieved a convincing victory on the back of his
"Economy First!" slogan.

US alliance

The former construction executive will be the first South Korean leader with a background in business and has promised a raft of pro-business policies including deregulation, privatisation, tax cuts and a better climate for foreign investors.

 

Lee rose from extreme poverty to
become mayor of Seoul [AFP]
 

Aside from fostering economic growth, pursuing closer ties with the US has been a cornerstone policy of Lee's since his election.

As president-elect
Lee has so far held two seminars with American experts to seek advice on bolstering the alliance between the countries.

He assumes office amid US concern over China's military build-up and with negotiations aimed at ridding North Korea of nuclear programmes at a deadlock.

Lee has said he plans to take a tougher line towards his country's northern communist neighbour, a move he demonstrated by an attempt to have the ministry of reunification scrapped as part of plans to streamline the South Korean administration.

However, moves to assimilate the ministry into one responsible for foreign affairs met with stern opposition from the current national assembly and although the number of government ministries was reduced from 18, the reunification office remained.

Lee's call for stronger relations with Washington also prompted a visit by a special Chinese envoy, the first time Beijing has sent a special diplomat to meet a South Korean president-elect.

"It appeared that [the envoy] came to convey concern Korea-China relations may drift apart if Korea-US relations become too strong," Lee told a veterans' group after meeting Chinese special envoy Wang Yi last month.

"I told him Korea-China relations will get better if Korea-US relations are stronger. He appeared to understand it."

Economic challenge

If Lee's foreign policy has already attracted some opposition, his economic policies may also be difficult to implement.

A
nalysts say Lee will be restricted by global financial uncertainty, high raw material prices, including oil, and a slowing US economy.

"A certain degree of scepticism greets these plans, given that the election of Lee's predecessor generated a similar reform buzz, but he failed to deliver," Daniel Melser of Moody's Economy.com said in a recent report.

How the new president will act with its northern
neighbour is of concern to Koreans [Reuters]
Lee was credited with helping to drive Korea's earlier meteoric growth when he was CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction.

Al Jazeera's Marga Ortigas in Seoul said that, despite Lee's large margin of victory in last year's election, his popularity has already dipped due to his stance on North Korea and his plans to boost the economy through ties with the US.

"His plans to remove the reconciliation ministry would have essentially meant the North [Korea] was treated as a separate country which is a big no-no in many South Koreans' eyes," she said.

Lee's plans for widespread change in South Korea are typical for a man nicknamed "The Bulldozer" and his inauguration completes a rags-to-riches story.

He was born into extreme poverty in 1941 and
helped his mother to sell food in the streets.

He went to Seoul to try to enter university, working as a labourer by day and studying at night.

Upon graduating he found it hard to get a job because of a conviction and jail term in 1964 for a protest against plans to normalise relations with Japan.

Lee took his grievances direct to the presidential palace and won an entry-level post with Hyundai Engineering and Construction in 1965 rising up the ranks to become CEO in just 12 years.

After an initial stint in parliament in the 1990s, he returned to politics in 2002 when he was elected the mayor of Seoul.

Standing for the conservative Grand National Party in last year's presidential election, Lee was the richest candidate with declared assets of $38 million.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies