South Korea’s "Bulldozer" topples into a ditch

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has carried the nickname “bulldozer” for much of his life as he rose through the corporate and political world with a can-do spirit, winning the respect of bosses and voters alike.

This week, he is under pressure for failing to deliver on his tough words six months ago to avenge the deaths of 46 sailors in a torpedo attack on a navy ship he blamed on North Korea so that Pyongyang would never repeat provocations.

On Monday, he conceded he had failed to protect the lives of civilians and soldiers and said he accepted responsibility for the public’s disappointment in how the military responded to an artillery attack by the North on a southern island last week.

“It proved wrong the assumption that conservative leaders are strong on national security,” political commentator Yu Chang-seon said. “The disappointment is all the greater because it was felt even among his support base, the conservatives.”

Lee had become a legend in his rags-to-riches tale to become the youngest chief executive at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, turning an upstart builder into the country’s biggest construction company.

He helped lay the asphalt and erect skyscrapers at home and abroad as South Korea surged to become one of Asia’s economic tigers.

As mayor of Seoul years later, he won over its residents with projects to bring back a stream running through the city center, opening city hall plaza for free concerts and skating in winter, and knocking time off their commutes by enforcing new bus lanes.

After winning the presidency in 2007 with the largest margin in the republic’s history, he weathered a political storm over an unpopular move to open the country to U.S. beef to become one of the most popular national leaders in office.

But his popularity has taken a nose-dive over the past week, dropping more than 15 percentage points in polls released on Monday from two weeks ago when he was seen as having successfully hosted a summit of G20 nations in Seoul.

A poll published by the Chosun Ilbo of 1,000 people four days after the North fired 170 artillery rounds on and around a South Korean island showed Lee’s popularity at 44.2 percent, down from almost 60 percent in some polls conducted two weeks ago.

Three quarters of those responding said the government did a poor job in responding to the island attack. That compares with opinion evenly divided over the government’s response to the North’s attack on the navy ship in March.

Lee said in a tough-worded national address on Monday that the incident proved the North can never be trusted and that Pyongyang would pay a price for any further provocation.

“Now is the time to show action, not a hundred words,” he said.

Political commentator Yu said the political damage would not derail Lee’s political legacy, but that North Korea would be the greatest dilemma of the rest of his term.

“The question is what the fundamental solution is going to be,” Yu said. “He faces a situation where trying to punish the North is not necessarily going to solve the problem.” (Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani)

South Korea’s "Bulldozer" topples into a ditch