Dr. Yong-Kyung Lee, better known in the western world as Ken Lee, is a person of many facets. One of Berkeley’s most illustrious alumni from Korea, he’s been a professor, a research scientist in the private sector in the U.S., CEO of a giant telecom corporation in Korea, and he’s now, as a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, a political leader.

Lee is gentle and informal in manner, but his career reveals a bottom-line realism coupled with adventurous foresight. His scientific interests have always been at the leading edge, and his corporate decisions have included tough ones that have affected the destinies of thousands.

He has a traditional side as well, a clue to which is his four-decade marriage, which was arranged by his parents and the bride’s. As a new grad student in electrical engineering here in the late ‘60s, Lee flew home to Seoul during the short winter break between terms. There, at the airport, he met his intended — for the first time. “We shook hands” he says. “The next day we had an engagement dinner, and two days later we got married.” Their union is now in its 40th year.

Lee’s “double-e” dissertation required experiments, which in turn required devices, and at Berkeley at the time, devices were do-it-yourself. “Berkeley was different from schools like Caltech and Stanford,” says Lee, where they had lab technicians for that. As a consequence, Lee remembers spending “most midnights” and sometimes all night in Cory Hall’s microelectronics lab, constructing equipment.

In retrospect, Lee thinks it took him more time to finish his Ph.D. at Berkeley than it might have elsewhere, “but it produced very long-lasting knowledge and confidence.” It also didn’t hurt that this campus had “a whole array of the very famous professors in physics and engineering” who had been among the army of scientists whose work was vital during World War II and the Korean War. “I really benefited from sitting in their lectures, meeting and knowing them in person,” Lee says.

(In those days, UC Berkeley only had about 70 students from Korea. Today, the number of Korean students enrolled at UC Berkeley is close to nine times that.)

The newlywed Lees lived first in an apartment on Delaware Street, then moved into married student housing in the former military barracks of Albany Village.“The rent was about $80 a month,” Lee recalls. (It now costs nearly 20 times that, in today’s dollars.)

To pay the rent and other expenses in grad school, Lee worked as a research assistant for his Ph.D. adviser, Professor Shyh Wang. “Without that,” he says, “I could not have made it through.” Under Wang, Lee worked in optical electronics — think of lasers — which Lee says was “a very hot field, the technology of the future at the time. And it still is!”

After 25 years in the U.S. as a research scientist, and concerned about his parents as they got up in years, Lee went home to South Korea in 1991. He was hired by Korea Telecom (KT), which was then a state-owned monopoly, to join and later head its research and development program. The government began privatizing the utility soon after. By 2002, the year Lee was chosen as its chief executive, KT had emerged as what has been called a “fully private telecommunications behemoth.”

The transition was not without pain. To guarantee the company’s survival in the 21st century Lee restructured the former heavily bureaucratic organization, cutting tens of thousands of jobs and reforming its governance to make it among the most transparent in Asia. The lumbering behemoth had become, by comparison, lithe and agile.

The agility came from Lee’s forward-looking, change-oriented approach. As a scientist whose career took him through satellite telecommunications, the World Wide Web, and the progression from fixed-line to broadband to wireless, he appreciated both the potential and the limits of technology. He foresaw the advent of home networking and guided KT into providing high-speed services for its subscribers, into partnerships that built condos fully geared to the Internet, and toward launching its own satellite.

Along the way as KT’s head, he put in place policies of ethical capitalism and corporate-driven public and social welfare projects aimed at bridging the digital divide and social inequality.

The scientist-executive Lee has been characterized as “one of the architects of the South Korean miracle” of broadband internet revolution in recent decades. In his latest incarnation as one of the 299 members of South Korea’s strong (if occasionally rowdy) unicameral legislative body, Lee has the opportunity to create social policy directly and help guide his country forward.

— by Dick Cortén (originally published in The Graduate magazine, Spring 2010)


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