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S. Korean president sworn in

Crowds swarm outside the National Assembly hall square
Crowds swarm outside the National Assembly hall square

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SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) -- Former human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun has become South Korea's ninth president amid a deepening crisis over North Korea's suspected nuclear ambitions and just hours after Pyongyang fired a missile out to sea.

Roh was sworn in Tuesday outside parliament in Seoul, then received a gun salute, reviewed a march past by troops in colorful traditional costume and was serenaded by opera singers in front of a pond.

But the ceremony, shortened in respect for the dozens who died in a subway fire a week ago, was overshadowed by North Korea's latest attention-grabbing tactic and uncertainty about the shape of future relations with the United States, Seoul's chief ally.

Roh was to meet U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, at the presidential Blue House for talks likely to be dominated by North Korea.

In his 30-minute inaugural speech, Roh did not refer to the North's firing of a short-range land-to-ship missile into the sea off the east coast of the divided peninsula.

But he said the North's suspected nuclear weapons programme was a grave threat to world peace and Pyongyang faced a choice between making atomic bombs and receiving international aid.

"The suspicion that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons poses a grave threat to world peace, not to mention the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia," he said.

"It is up to Pyongyang whether to go ahead and obtain nuclear weapons or to get guarantees for the security of its regime and international economic support."

The 56-year-old, almost entirely untested in foreign policy, said he would seek a more equitable and reciprocal relationship with the South's main ally, the United States. There are 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea.

Roh, who has made clear he disagrees with Washington's policy of not ruling out a military option to deal with North Korea, said military tension should not be heightened over the crisis.

Roh said the foreign exchange factors that caused the 1997 Asian financial crisis still existed in South Korea. He called for new economic strategies at a time of economic uncertainty and for an EU-style community in Northeast Asia.

'Peace and prosperity'

Roh Moo-hyun, right, and his wife Kwon Yang-sook are bid farewell by neighbors as they leave their home
Roh Moo-hyun, right, and his wife Kwon Yang-sook are bid farewell by neighbors as they leave their home

Roh has vowed to continue predecessor Kim Dae-jung's unconditional engagement with North Korea despite the communist state's suspected nuclear ambitions.

Roh's new policy slogan for North Korea is "peace and prosperity." Despite Kim's reconciliation drive, peace has eluded the prosperous South as the heavily armed communist North has fallen decades behind its southern neighbor economically.

Among the more than 200 foreign dignitaries attending Roh's inauguration were senior representatives of major powers with a keen interest in defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis,

Roh's first task will be diplomatic talks on North Korea with Powell, Koizumi and China's foreign policy tsar, Qian Qichen. He will also meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, Moscow's pointman on North Korea.

Ties between the United States and South Korea are set to enter unknown territory under Roh, who won election in December on the back of surging anti-U.S. street demonstrations and the vote of a nationalistic younger generation.

'Not to kow-tow'

Roh has pledged never to kow-tow to Washington and to forge more equal ties with the United States, South Korea's main ally and trade partner for half a century.

Roh is the first Seoul leader without a strong pro-U.S. orientation or clear memories of the U.S. role in the Korean War -- like the more than two-thirds of South Koreans who were born after the 1950-53 conflict that divided the peninsula.

"First of all, President Roh must get rid of insecure factors in security and the first step for this should be to put the Korea-U.S. alliance back on track," said the conservative Chosun Ilbo, the country's largest daily newspaper.

Roh has never visited the United States and he won election vowing to seek more autonomy from Washington.

Roh, however, opposes sanctions and says he would rule out the use of force, because both war or North Korea's collapse would have devastating consequences on South Korea.



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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