As a bookish entrepreneur who made his fortune in software before turning to philanthropy, Ahn Cheol-soo has been called South Korea's Bill Gates. Now he's looking for a new title: Mr. President.
The political novice announced his candidacy last month, shaking up a campaign dominated by South Korea's two major political parties with a message of change that appeals to the nation's young and hopeful. The parties have rarely seen credible challengers from outside their ranks, but Ahn argues that having no experience may be better than "bad experience" at a time when South Korea is in need of new direction.
"Our lives can change only after our politics change," Ahn said as he announced his campaign at a nationally televised news conference. "I hope the people's wishes for new changes will be united by this election."
Ahn, 50, is the founder of South Korea's largest antivirus maker, AhnLab. He holds a medical Ph.D., boosted his profile with lectures and this summer became a bestselling author with a book detailing his thoughts on national issues.
Many surveys in recent years have found him to be one of the most respected living South Koreans, but many people are skeptical about his ability to govern a country of 50 million people that faces the ever-present threat of nuclear-armed North Korea on its doorstep.
"Swimming in the pool is totally different from swimming in the ocean," said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul.
Ahn's announcement to run in the Dec. 19 poll, which ended nearly a year of speculation about his political ambitions, quickly boosted his popularity, though he has yet to reveal any official campaign pledges about how he would bring about promised reforms. His campaign says those will be outlined in the coming weeks.
Opinion surveys released after his entry showed him overtaking and beating conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye, daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, in a hypothetical two-way matchup. Park, however, remains the front-runner in a three-way race involving liberal opposition candidate Moon Jae-in. Term limits prevent conservative President Lee Myung-bak from running again.
Many analysts say Ahn and Moon would have to join forces and field a single candidate between them to defeat Park, a common process in South Korean presidential politics. Ahn has been more critical of the current conservative government and is thought to be more liberal.
Ahn's popularity suggests that many South Koreans want a fresh figure in the country's political community, which has long been plagued by corruption, factional feuding, backroom dealings, foul play and regional rivalry.
"The Ahn Cheol-soo syndrome shows the people's dissatisfaction with the current political establishment," said Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. "He also has a special charm."
Ahn has struck a chord with younger South Koreans by raising issues of social and economic inequality in this highly competitive society. Many believe that family, school and other backgrounds are as key to a person's success as actual qualifications and ability, and those with the wrong father or alma mater have been left behind.
"Ahn has said, 'I know what your problems are and those are all the adult generation's fault,' ... so that's the fundamental reason for their support for him," said Hong Sung Gul, who teaches public administration at Seoul's Kookmin University.
Kim Jaewoo, a 28-year-old Seoul office worker, said he finds Ahn to be a refreshing change from career politicians.
"Ahn has never engaged in politics so I think approaches it with a fresh viewpoint," he said. "I also like him because he has an image as a smarter, cleaner person."
Ahn himself is a product of Korea's top schools. He was 26 and studying for a medical doctorate at Seoul National University when he developed South Korea's first antivirus program in 1988.
He distributed the program to computer users for free. After working as a medical professor and a navy doctor, he established AhnLab with only a few employees in 1995; it has since grown into South Korea's biggest information security company.
Ahn resigned as AhnLab's chief executive officer in 2005, then taught management and entrepreneurship in universities. He gained further fame after a series of lectures he gave on college campuses about diverse issues. An appearance on a popular TV talk show in 2009 cemented his image as a smart yet untainted and honest man.
Ahn has promised to donate half of his AhnLab shares to charity, with $62 million worth converted and provided to the Ahn Foundation earlier this year. His current holdings in the company are worth about $210 million.
Talk of Ahn's presidential ambitions flared a year ago when he considered running in Seoul's mayoral election but gave up his bid at the last minute to throw his support behind liberal lawyer and activist Park Won-soon. His backing helped Park, whose approval rating had initially hovered around 5 percent, win the election.
In July, Ahn published a book that laid out his thoughts on major issues the country faces and quickly became a bestseller. In it, he stresses the need to increase spending on welfare systems, reform family-run chaebol conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai and promote fairness and transparency.
On North Korea, Ahn says peaceful economic cooperation with the northern rival could provide South Korea with a new growth engine, with its natural resources, tourism assets and cheap labor. Ahn criticizes Lee for initiating a hardline policy on North Korea, and the president's liberal predecessors for causing an ideological divide in the country over whether they pampered the North with unconditional assistance.
Ahn had been vague about his presidential ambitions until last month, triggering questions over whether he is indecisive or just wanted to give his opponents less time to scrutinize his qualifications. Ahn has said he needed time to think about whether he is capable of leading the country.
Ahn's critics also aren't impressed with his book, saying it lacks concrete details on his policies and action plans.
Hong, the university professor, said he has "very big concerns" about Ahn's readiness to be president.
"We cannot do politics only with ideals," he said.