South Korea’s Lee talks tough to revive tarnished image

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, long known as the “bulldozer,” took office committed to ending conciliation with North Korea, but stands accused of showing weakness and has little to show from his hard line.

He has now vowed a “merciless counterattack” in the face of any repeat of last month’s attack by the North on a South Korean island and may find it more painful to back down this time.

Lee rose through the corporate and political world with a can-do spirit, winning the respect of bosses and voters alike.

But he has come under pressure for failing to deliver on his pledge six months ago to avenge the deaths of 46 sailors in a torpedo attack on a navy ship he blamed on North Korea.

Like most in the South, he now says he has run out of patience, and that it is time to retaliate if needed.

“We need to deter war and prevent surprise aggression and for that we need to deal a massive counterattack,” he told South Korean troops last week on a visit to a forward army unit overlooking the Demilitarized Zone border with the North.

“We had believed patience would ensure peace on this land, but that was not the case.”

Lee, a conservative, ended a decade of the “Sunshine Policy” practiced by his two liberal predecessors who engaged the North in dialogue and offered economic aid despite acts of violence against the South.

More than two years into his mandate, Lee has been rebuked even by his conservative support base.

For the rest of his single five-year term, he risks being overwhelmed by the distraction of dealing with the North. His attempts to introduce pro-business reforms have been paralyzed, weakening the chances of his right-of-center party retaining the presidency in 2012.

“The frequency and severity of North Korean provocations have pushed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak literally against a political wall,” said Larry Niksch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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

As mayor of Seoul, he won over residents with projects to bring back a stream running through the city center, civic recreation, and knocking time off commutes by enforcing bus lanes.

He won the presidency in 2007 with the largest margin in the republic’s history, but his popularity has recently nose-dived.

Some polls showed his approval rating dropping by more than 15 percentage points in a matter of weeks in November. He started off the month well, seen as having successfully hosted a summit of G20 nations in Seoul.

Political commentator Yu Chang-seon said the North would remain the greatest dilemma of Lee’s time in office regardless of his domestic political initiatives.

“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 Ron Popeski)

South Korea’s Lee talks tough to revive tarnished image