This year, another Penn alum has announced his presidential aspirations.
Ahn Cheol-soo, who has degrees from both Wharton and Engineering, announced last month that he is running in the presidential election in South Korea to take place on Dec. 19.
Ahn, whose daughter attended Penn, is running as an independent after months of speculation.
Though he has never held elected office before, Ahn has already gathered a popular following, said Eugene Park, a Korea Foundation history professor.
The candidate’s main competitors are Park Geun-hye — leader of the conservative New Frontier Party and daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee — and Moon Jae-in. Moon is the candidate for the liberal Democratic United Party and former chief-of-staff to president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009 amid bribery investigations.
A Korean poll in September showed that in a three-way race, Ahn would receive 24.7 percent of the vote, behind Park’s 41 percent and ahead of Moon’s 19.2, though Moon has since been gaining ground.
Ahn is running on a platform of relative openness with North Korea — known as the Sunshine Policy — and economic progress. He advocates for “sustainable economic growth that gives opportunity for all,” Professor Park said.
Park added that he believes Ahn, a centrist candidate, will strike an alliance with one of the two main parties.
Ahn is most popular amongst urban, highly educated young people, Park said.
“People got really fed up with the two main [political parties in Korea],” said Hyun-binn Cho, a graduate student in political science.
Royce Kwon, a Wharton senior also from Korea, also expressed frustration over the country’s political parties. “That’s why Mr. Ahn does not associate with either party,” he said. Kwon, who situates himself “on the conservative side,” says he plans to vote for Ahn.
Ahn is a 2008 Wharton MBA recipient and 1997 Engineering Executive Masters in Technology Management graduate.
In 1995, Ahn founded AhnLab, Inc., an antivirus software company that created the first Korean antivirus program, and distributed it free of charge to the public. Ahn also offered in December 2011 to donate half his shares in the company — worth roughly $220 million — for the education of low-income children.
Ahn has a diverse career, having acquired degrees in medicine, engineering and business management.
“What I like about him is first he’s very knowledgeable,” said Wharton junior Changhyun Bahn. “Second, he’s a Penn alum, so I would be very proud if he becomes president, people will know my school in Korea,” Bahn said.
His successful career has made Ahn a well-liked figure in Korea, Park said.
After founding AhnLab, Ahn decided to enroll in Penn’s EMTM program. He commuted every other week between Seoul and Philadelphia.
In the election, Ahn will have to face public scrutiny as a result of his considerable fortune.
“Because he’s been rich and had a fairly rich upbringing … he might not understand the average guy’s kind of plight,” Cho said.
“Korean people don’t like rich people,” Kwon said, “probably to the fault of rich people” who are “above the law.”
Bahn believes Ahn’s wealth may represent a positive change. He “symbolizes the venture industry in Korea,” he said, deploring the dominance of conglomerates like Samsung in the Korean industry.
Nevertheless, Bahn does not support the candidate, believing that a “smart person doesn’t necessarily make the best leader.”
“We always have to rely on someone who is fancy, who looks sexy, but we don’t know how he would do as an actual politician.”
He also criticized Ahn for his lack of charisma.
Kwon argues Ahn has a charisma of his own. Ahn is like water — “he flows well with other people,” and does not oppose them, he said.
“His presence and his motivation will spark something in a young person’s mind.”
Regardless, Park said Ahn’s candidacy is “unprecedented” in over half a century of South Korean politics.
This story has been updated to reflect that Ahn, not Park, is running on a platform of openness toward North Korea.