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‘The Bulldozer’ takes over as S. Korea president

Former businessman Lee Myung-bak took the oath of office as South Korea's new president Monday, vowing to revitalize the economy, strengthen relations with the U.S. and deal with nuclear-armed North Korea.
South Korea New President
South Korean elementary school children perform for South Korea's President-elect Lee Myung-bak and his wife Kim Yoon-ok, left, as they leave their home for the presidential inauguration ceremony in Seoul on Monday.Hwang Kwang-mo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hard-charging former businessman Lee Myung-bak took the oath of office as South Korea's new president Monday, vowing to revitalize the economy, strengthen relations with the U.S. and deal with nuclear-armed North Korea.

The conservative, pro-U.S. Lee, nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for the can-do image he honed as a construction company CEO and later as mayor of Seoul, was sworn into office in a colorful outdoor ceremony at the National Assembly in the presence of tens of thousands of onlookers.

"Economic revival is our most urgent task," Lee said in his inauguration speech.

Lee also vowed to boost ties with the United States and called for summits with North Korea as needed, according to an advance copy of the speech.

He was expected to hold talks later in the day with Rice as well as Japan's Fukuda.

Lee's presidency ends a decade of liberal rule that critics say hindered economic growth, was too soft on communist North Korea and fomented tension with traditional close ally Washington.

Officials and ordinary citizens attended the inauguration in near-freezing temperatures, along with foreign dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Lee, the 10th man to be South Korea's president and the first to come from a business background, overwhelmingly won December's election on a promise to make the economy his top priority.

He has promised to achieve annual growth of 7 percent, double the country's per capita income to US$40,000 (euro27,000) over a decade and make South Korea one of the world's top seven economies. He calls this his "747" pledge, meant to evoke a soaring jumbo jet.

Lee, 66, says he will slash regulations, initiate tax reforms, streamline government and draw in more foreign investment. South Korea's economy grew 4.9 percent last year and 5 percent the year before, but Lee says it has underperformed.

Though Lee has vowed to broadly continue Seoul's policy of detente with the North, he says he will maintain a more critical eye. His liberal predecessors _ Roh and Kim Dae-jung _ gave unconditional aid and concessions as part of reconciliation efforts.

Lee says if leader Kim Jong Il abandons his nuclear programs, the South will launch massive investment and aid projects in the impoverished North to increase its per capita income to US$3,000 (euro2,000).

Park Beop-ryeol, chief monk at a Buddhist temple, said it was time for a change in South Korea's approach to the North.

"Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun poured our taxpayers' money into North Korea," Park, dressed in gray Buddhist robes, said before attending the inauguration. "But think about what we get in return. I believe that Lee Myung-bak will surely resolve the North Korean nuclear dispute."

Lee also said he will bolster Seoul's strategic ties with the U.S. to help resolve the nuclear issue.

International talks on North Korea reported significant progress last year after Pyongyang shut down its main nuclear reactor and began disabling key atomic facilities.

The talks, however, have not been held since October due to a dispute over whether Pyongyang kept its promise to declare all its nuclear programs by the end of December.

South Korea's political transition comes amid a thaw in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. The New York Philharmonic orchestra was to perform in Pyongyang on Tuesday, becoming the first major U.S. cultural group to travel to the isolated country since the Korean peninsula's division six decades ago.

The Japan-born Lee first gained prominence as head of the massive Hyundai conglomerate's construction unit, which helped build South Korea during its miraculous economic rise in the 1960-70s. He became CEO at age 35.

He entered politics as a national legislator in 1992 but was forced to step down for violating campaign spending limits.

In 2002, Lee was elected as Seoul mayor and won praise for restoring a long-paved-over scenic stream to create a popular landmark in the heart of the congested city of 10.4 million people.

He won the Dec. 19 presidential election, defeating the closest opponent by 22.6 percentage points — the largest margin since democratic elections were restored in South Korea in 1987.