Female South Korean lawmaker may be tougher than the military

As the cameras whirred and her fellow legislators watched in silence, the petite lawmaker held up Exhibit A: a new pair of combat boots.

The government had just spent $35 million and a decade doing research on the high-tech shoes, which leaked in the rain and quickly shed their heels. As far as Song Young-sun was concerned, they were just the latest example of what was wrong with the South Korean military.

“You’re spending billions of dollars to purchase fighter jets, ships and submarines, but the most important thing on your shopping list should be the morale of your soldiers,” Song bluntly told military brass summoned to the National Assembly recently for an annual government audit.


“These boots are their personal vehicles for 16 hours a day. If your feet hurt when you walk, you’re not a dedicated soldier. And if you generals lose your men, you’ve already lost the war.”

Even in a nation famous for its sharp-elbowed political theater, the performance was memorable. But it was classic Song, a policeman’s daughter whose college hero was steely British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Song, a veteran military analyst who is one of only 41 women among 299 national lawmakers, has unabashedly used her post on the powerful National Defense Committee to help keep the highest-ranking military minds in check, publicly questioning the nation’s military readiness in the face of an aggressive North Korea and its million-man army.

Along the way, she has embarrassed career officers who aren’t used to such a take-no-prisoners skewering, especially from a woman.

With a sigh, the 58-year-old Song acknowledged that she’s still single. And maybe that’s why.

“Korean men my age are intimidated by aggressive women,” she said. “They all want quiet stay-at-home wives.”

A well-coiffed woman who’s fond of colorful business suits, Song seems anything but homemaker material. She’s more military strategist with a penchant for surprising her enemy.

To win the battle, she’s not afraid of resorting to stunts: She once showed up at the National Assembly with a suitcase full of over-the-counter chemicals, giving a demonstration on how they could easily be combined to make deadly sarin gas.

On an impromptu inspection of a military contractor whose military-ration kimchi once contained a dead rat, she announced, “If I had a son in the military and he had to eat this kind of garbage, I’d kill all the generals.”

But it’s not just the generals who have felt her wrath. Song has blasted overprotective mothers for turning many soldiers into “mama’s boys” and has proposed that military service should be mandatory for women, not just men.

She has investigated the breakdown of armored vehicles and a tank whose barrel exploded. She has campaigned against substandard drinking water and a lack of live bullets for soldiers and probed the theft of top-secret military files, including North Korea war plans, from army-issued computers.

Song knows her confrontational style has made her enemies.

“I am popular with some and extremely unpopular with others,” she says. “Many military officials avoid me because I jeopardize business, rock the boat. People are scratching each other’s back, and then here comes this woman to make a public fuss.”

Her hectoring is applauded by the public and the news media, which followed one recent skewering of a panel of generals with the headline, “Song Young-sun makes [military] stars tremble.”

Song, an eldest child with three brothers, suffered from a childhood disorder that left her so weak she couldn’t walk until she was 3. In elementary school, classmates called her “eyes on a stick” because of her straw-thin figure, according to her home page.

Today, she spends her off hours exercising and adding to an academic resume that already includes two master’s degrees and a doctorate in political science. Her career resume is also spit and polish: Before becoming a lawmaker in 2004, she spent 20 years at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, gaining expertise in East Asian security.

Many critics dismiss her as a shameless grandstander. They say she has never achieved office in a bona fide election but has twice been her party’s appointee to the legislature in an effort to add more women to the lawmaking process. Peace activists have burned her in effigy for what they call her hawkish approach to national security.

“She’s a jack of all trades and master of none,” said a former presidential aide who asked not to be named because he tries to keep cordial relations with Song. “She becomes a so-called expert in just a day.”

Her entry into politics surprised even Song. Kim Mun-soo, former head of the Grand National Party’s candidate selection committee, was impressed with her candor as a guest on a political talk show.

She was soon invited for an interview, which didn’t begin well. “I’d never heard of Kim, but he made me wait an hour and a half, which made me mad from the start,” she recalls.

When Kim appeared, he politely asked for five minutes of her time. To hear Song tell it, she replied, “You’ve got three.”

“The secretary said I was obnoxious to a man who was a kingmaker,” she says. But after an hourlong talk, Kim reached across his desk and said, “Let’s do politics together.”

Six years ago, Song received the Grand National Party’s backing as a national lawmaker. Four years later, the political group had become the ruling party, but Song joined the legislative minority after falling out of favor with President Lee Myung-bak. (In the 2007 presidential election, Song sided with Lee’s female opponent.)

Song says her patriotism drives her to pound away at the military culture, which she charges is pervaded by retired generals who cut backroom deals with contractors.

Then there’s “the sheer stupidity” of such things as the square-handled hammer that “even an elementary school graduate could see would quickly give soldiers blisters.”

Song relishes the TV spotlight, moments for which she saves her best ammunition. “I’m a teacher deep in my DNA,” she says, “and I know that audiovisuals can win over any audience.”

Her combat boot performance was another victory. Song surprised military officials by securing from the manufacturer one of the 4,500 defective pairs of boots out of an order of 450,000 — a small percentage, but too much for Song.

Chastised military brass agreed to remedy the problem, a tacit surrender that Song says proves her strategy: that telling it like it is, making a few enemies along the way, is sometimes what it takes.

“I’m just a woman who speaks my mind.”

Ethan Kim in The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.