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Park sworn in as first female South Korean leader

AFP-JIJI

Park Geun Hye became South Korea’s first female president Monday, vowing zero tolerance of North Korean provocations and demanding Pyongyang “abandon its nuclear ambitions” immediately.

As leader of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, Park, the 61-year-old daughter of late military strongman Park Chung Hee, faces challenges of slowing growth and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies.

Taking the oath of office less than two weeks after North Korea carried out its third nuclear test, Park called on the regime in Pyongyang to “abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay” 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.

Observers say her options will be limited by the international outcry over the North’s Feb. 12 nuclear test, which has emboldened the hawks in her ruling Saenuri Party who oppose closer engagement.

Monday’s 2½-hour inauguration ceremony, held on a chilly and cloudy morning, included a musical warmup concert that saw Korean rapper Psy perform his global hit “Gangnam Style.”

Park took office a little more than 50 years after her father, a vehement anticommunist, seized power in a military coup.

Park Chung Hee ruled with an iron fist for the next 18 years until his 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 democratization” 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.

“At the very heart of a creative economy lie science and 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 “chaebol,” that dominate the national economy, Park promised a more level playing field and a “fair market” where small and medium-size businesses could flourish.

Chaebol such as Samsung and Hyundai were the original drivers of the nation’s industrialization and economic growth, but have recently been criticized as corporate bullies who muscle out smaller firms and smother innovation.

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

As South Korea’s first female president, Park leads a country that is ranked below the likes of Suriname and the United Arab Emirates in gender equality.

Its low birthrate means the population is increasingly skewed toward the over-60s, who fear an old age of isolation and financial anxiety.

“No citizen should be left to fear that he or she might not be able to meet the basic requirements of life,” Park said in her speech, promising a “new paradigm of tailored welfare” for the aged and unemployed.