South Koreans called President Lee Myung-bak “The Bulldozer” when he plowed into office nearly three years ago with vows to stop coddling North Korea with unconditional aid.
These days, however, the nickname has started to ring hollow.
It originally denoted toughness and resolve, stemming from Lee’s days as an aggressive construction CEO. But North Korea’s brazen artillery attack on a South Korean island last week and a response slammed as weak are raising questions about Lee’s readiness — and even willingness — to stand up to the North.
In the face of criticism, Lee replaced his defense minister and moved to boost troops on front-line islands. He has also promised tough consequences for any future aggression and expressed his outrage over the “ruthlessness of the North Korean regime.”
Lee, who turns 69 this month, has been criticized for leading a military whose response to the Yeonpyeong attack was seen as too slow and too weak: the North fired 170 rounds compared with 80 returned by South Korea.
He has issued similar pledges before, and the North Korean shelling on Nov. 23 that killed four South Koreans and destroyed parts of Yeonpyeong Island has prompted questions over what critics say is a failed policy toward the North.
Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, said Lee also faces restraints that North Korea does not. He is leader of a robust democracy with an open economy that is vulnerable to the type of threats and tactics used by Pyongyang.
The crux of the problem, however, is that, despite “The Bulldozer’s” tough words, South Korea’s national security policy and defense readiness have weakened under his watch, he said.
“You have to be prepared,” Pinkston said. “You can’t be afraid to respond or go to war if you have to go to war.”