News / Asia

South Korea Swears in First Woman President

South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye takes an oath during her inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2013.South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye takes an oath during her inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2013.
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South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye takes an oath during her inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2013.
South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye takes an oath during her inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2013.
South Korea has inaugurated its first female president. She is Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former president with a controversial legacy.

Before a crowd of 70,000 people, Madame Park Geun-hye, dressed in an olive green coat and wearing a violet-colored scarf, took the oath of office as her country's 11th president since its inception in 1948.

She then saluted as a military band marched and cannons fired to celebrate her inauguration.

Challenges ahead

In her inaugural address, the president called rival Pyongyang's latest nuclear test “a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people” and said North Korea will be “the biggest victim.”

Calling on the North to abandon wasting resources on nuclear and missile development, the new president in Seoul pledged to “move forward, step-by-step, on the basis of credible deterrence to build trust between the South and the North.”

President Park also issued a warning to Pyongyang that she will “not tolerate any action that threatens the lives” of the people and security of the nation.

In the hours before the ceremony, South Korea's military went on a higher state of alert.

Domestic media say air force fighter jets patrolled the skies;  the navy moved warships into the Yellow Sea;  and, the army boosted its guard around the capital - this amid anxiety that North Korea might attempt to carry out a provocation and take the spotlight off the ceremony in Seoul.

Bittersweet

For Madame Park, her inauguration day marks a bittersweet return to the Blue House. She left the official presidential residence as a 22-year-old grieving daughter, dressed in black, on November 21, 1979.

The shadow of her father's legacy looms large as her administration begins.

As the first child of a South Korean president to be elected to the same post, the never-married new leader seeks to dissuade criticism that she is more than just the daughter of a dictator. A five-term lawmaker in her own right, she barely lost a primary contest five years ago to the president she has succeeded, Lee Myung-bak, constitutionally limited to a single term.

In her inaugural address,  President Park looked beyond the peninsula, vowing to strengthen trust with other countries, especially the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

China ties

During the election campaign, she specifically pledged to improve ties with China.

Political analyst Hwang Tae-soon at the Wisdom Center (a think tank in Seoul) sees security concerns keeping South Korea in a tight relationship with its military ally, the United States.

Hwang notes that while president-elect, Madame Park did send her first special envoy to China, not the United States. But he says her selections for foreign and defense ministers, in the wake of the crisis emanating from North Korea's third nuclear test February 12t, indicate she has judged closer communication with Washington more important than balancing ties with Beijing. Thus, Hwang predicts her foreign policy, initially, will not differ that much from the previous administration.

The National Assembly has yet to hold hearings on any of the new president's Cabinet nominees. Thus President Park, for the time being, is governing with the ministers of her predecessor.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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