Updated Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:31 AM
SEOUL — Thirty-four years ago, Park Geun-hye spent her last night in South Korea’s presidential mansion washing her assassinated father’s blood-soaked shirt. Today she returns as the country’s first female president.
The eldest daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee assumed executive power at midnight and took the oath of office Monday morning at an outdoor ceremony in front of the National Assembly.
Park moved out of her home in Seoul’s Gangnam district with two Korean Jindo puppies, a present from her neighbors to “protect her” and officially moves into the presidential Blue House later Monday.
“We are confronted anew with a global economic crisis and outstanding security challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear threat,” Park said in her inauguration speech. “The tasks we face today are unlike any we have confronted before.”
About 70,000 people were invited to Park’s inauguration, including Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Thomas Donilon, President Obama’s national-security adviser.
Singer and rapper Psy performed “Gangnam Style” ahead of Park’s swearing-in ceremony. His song last year became the most-viewed video on Google’s YouTube website, propelling him to global fame.
In succeeding Lee Myung-bak for a single five-year term, Park, 61, inherits an economy burdened by a widening income gap, record household debt and the won’s 23 percent gain in six months against the yen that’s hurting export competitiveness with rival Japan.
Her success may hinge on whether she can escape the shadow of her father’s dictatorial 18-year rule, which was marked by double-digit growth, as well as torture and censorship to quash dissent. She also faces a North Korea emboldened by this month’s nuclear test, which has forced her to amend pledges to engage with the totalitarian state.
Park campaigned on pledges to raise wages, boost welfare spending and rein in the influence of the chaebol, the business conglomerates such as Samsung Group and Hyundai Motor that her father helped create. Her new government’s first priority is to create jobs by funding more research in information technology and science.
When her mother was killed by a North Korean agent in a 1974 assassination attempt on her father, the never-married Park became South Korea’s first lady at the age of 22. She left public life when her father was killed by his intelligence chief in 1979, before returning as a legislator in 1998.
Older South Koreans, who make up most of her political base, are nostalgic for an economy that grew an average 10.3 percent during the last nine years of her father’s regime. Younger voters tend to associate her with his dictatorship, and she vowed after her December victory to heal the scars of his legacy.
Park takes office with a 61.4 percent approval rating, according to a Feb. 18-22 survey by Realmeter.
Asia’s fourth-biggest economy grew an average 4.3 percent over the five years through 2007, before a U.S. housing market crash triggered a global recession.
The new president promises to usher in a “People’s Happiness Era” by broadening the middle class to 70 percent of the country’s 50 million population. Her government has allocated 72 percent of the budget in the first half of the year to aid a recovery. She hasn’t announced how she will finance her pledges to raise wages, increase welfare spending and immediately introduce an 18 trillion won ($16.6 billion) fund to help avert loan defaults.
North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test forced Park to shift from calling for more engagement with Kim Jong Un’s regime. While during the campaign she expressed willingness to hold a summit with Kim and expand economic aid, the new government’s stance is “based on strong deterrence, not one of appeasement,” Park told her advisers a day after the test.
During her term, Park will oversee South Korea’s taking back operational control of its troops during wartime from the U.S. force stationed on the peninsula. She has proposed reducing mandatory military service for males to 18 months from the current 21 months, drawing criticism that the cut may weaken the South’s ability to respond to increasing threats.
Shin Jun-Hee /The Associated Press
South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye waves to supporters in Seoul on Monday.