PAJU, South Korea - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, criticised for his response to an attack by North Korea, finds himself under fire for the second time this year for being indecisive and for failing to keep the public informed.
Seoul's response to the attack on a village on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people including two civilians, mirrored that of nine months ago after the torpedoing of its Cheonan warship. It showed enormous restraint.
By doing so, Lee hopes to prevent the peninsula from sliding into a deeper conflict which could severely impact the world's 14th largest economy and scare off investors, analysts say.
In March, Lee was criticised as much for being too hard as too soft, with leftists saying his North Korea policies had provoked the sinking of the ship, which Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. North Korea denies having anything to do with it.
Others said Seoul failed to respond forcefully. This week, that is the widely held opinion after the first attack on a civilian area since the two Koreas signed to a truce to end fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.
"The government is stuck in a dilemma because it has to take a carefully balanced approach that clearly demonstrates its resolve against North Korea while at the same time prevents a full-blown war on the peninsula," said Kim Seung-hwan of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies at Myungji University.
On Thursday, Defence Minister Kim Tae-young quit, some seven months after his initial offer to resign over the sinking of the Cheonan was rejected by Lee.
After a government investigation found the North responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, Lee vowed that if Pyongyang attacked again, the South would respond with force.
Ex-servicemen, the media and even members of his own ruling party are questioning the failure to retaliate -- at least in kind -- to the North Korean barrage of artillery fire.
"The lazy government's policies towards North Korea are too soft," said Kim Byeong-su, 52, at an anti-North Korea rally at the border town of Paju. "It needs to take revenge on a bunch of mad dogs.
"The government and lawmakers need to take action because it always is us being attacked. We need to show them South Korea is not to be played with."
ACTION, NOT WORDS
On Tuesday, the South Korean military returned fire 13 minutes after the first North Korean shells hit the fishing village, and with considerably fewer rounds.
"The government should have reacted immediately to the attack, firing enough shells to completely devastate the North Korean side and President Lee should have actively commanded the counter-offence himself," said Kim of Myungji University.
"The Lee Myung-bak administration must henceforth take a strong approach that demonstrates its resolve through action, rather than words."
An editorial in the Joongang Daily called into question Lee's leadership qualities, demanding to know why he still has not addressed the public about the attack.
"At a moment of national crisis, he still lacks a crucial ability to communicate with the people," the paper said.
Lee's position is not on the line, with only about two years of his five-year presidency remaining, but the government's perceived failings could dent the party's chances in national elections in 2012.
In-Jae Lee, the mayor of Paju, said Friday's anti-North Korea rally only few kilometres from the heavily militarised border, was "not a protest but a shout for survival" and politicians should be held to account.
"If a government does not show strong resolution then it is not capable of protecting its people," he said. "Those who have not acted in a proper way need now to take responsibility."
Some members of the ruling party accept the government is in damage-control mode.
"The government's policy is clearly faulty," said Hwang Jin-ha, a senior Grand National Party lawmaker. "Because it's a policy that keeps giving a gangster supplies and then begs them not to attack." (Additional reporting by Danbee Moon and Yeojung Chang; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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