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S Korea swears in first female president

25 February 2013, 08:29

Seoul - Park Geun-Hye was sworn in as South Korea's first female president on Monday, vowing zero tolerance with provocations from a nuclearised North Korea and a new era of economic prosperity for all.

As leader of Asia's fourth-largest economy, Park, aged 61, faces significant challenges, including the belligerent regime in the North, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies.

Taking the oath of office in front of 70 000 people gathered in front of the National Assembly building in Seoul, Park called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and rejoin the international community.

"North Korea's recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people, and there should be no mistake that the biggest victim will be none other than North Korea itself," she said.

"I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation," Park said, while promising to pursue the trust-building policy with Pyongyang that she had promised in her campaign.

"I will move forward step-by-step on the basis of credible deterrence," she added.

Focus on economy

Observers say her options will be limited by the international outcry over the North's 12 February nuclear test, which has emboldened the hawks in her ruling conservative party who oppose closer engagement.

Park took office a little more than 50 years after her father, South Korea's late military strongman and vehement anti-communist Park Chung-Hee, seized power in a coup.

He went on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next 18 years until his eventual assassination, and remains a divisive figure - credited with dragging the country out of poverty but reviled for his regime's human rights abuses.

The bulk of Park's inauguration speech focused on the economy, and included commitments to job creation, expanded welfare and "economic democratisation" at a time of growing concern with income and wealth disparity.

South Korea's extraordinary economic revival from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean war - known as the "Miracle on the Han" - has faltered in recent years, with key export markets hit by the global downturn.

Promising "another miracle", Park said her administration would build a new "creative economy" that would move beyond the country's traditional manufacturing base.

Fair market

"At the very heart of a creative economy lie science technology and the IT industry, areas that I have earmarked as key priorities," she said.

In a clear warning to the giant, family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols", that dominate the national economy, Park promised a more level-playing field and a "fair market" where small and medium-sized businesses could flourish.

"By rooting out various unfair practices and rectifying the misguided habits of the past which have frustrated small business owners... we will provide active support to ensure that everyone can live up to their fullest potential," she said.

Chaebols such as Samsung and Hyundai were the original drivers of the nation's industrialisation and economic growth, but have been criticised as corporate bullies who muscle smaller firms out of the market and smother innovation.

As South Korea's first-ever female president, Park will lead a country that is ranked below the likes of Suriname and the United Arab Emirates in gender equality.

South Korea's journey from war-torn poverty to Asia's fourth-largest economy has done little to break the male stranglehold on political and commercial power in what in many ways remains a very conservative nation.

Monday's two-and-a-half hour inauguration ceremony included a 21-gun salute and a performance from Korean rapper Psy of his song Gangnam Style - the global hit of 2012.



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