SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- Park Geun-hye took the oath of office as South Korea's new president Monday, pledging to revitalize the slumping economy and warning North Korea that the communist nation will be the "biggest victim" of its own nuclear programs.
"As president of the Republic of Korea, I will live up to the will of the people by achieving economic rejuvenation, the happiness of the people, and the flourishing of our culture," Park said in her inauguration address at the National Assembly plaza.
"I will do my utmost to build a Republic of Korea that is prosperous and where happiness is felt by all Koreans," she said before tens of thousands of people in attendance at the ceremony. The Republic of Korea is South Korea's official name.
Park, 61, is South Korea's first female president and the first child of a former president to assume the top office. She returned to the presidential house Cheong Wa Dae that she left in bitter tears 34 years ago after the assassination of her father, former President Park Chung-hee.
Park takes over at a time when South Korea is struggling to rein in an unruly North Korea rattling its nuclear saber with its third atomic test, energize its slowing economy -- Asia's fourth-largest -- and tighten the gap between the rich and the poor.
North Korea is by far the most pressing issue for her. Just two weeks earlier, Pyongyang defiantly carried out its third nuclear test, bringing the specter of a North Korea capable of flying nuclear warheads atop long-range missiles closer to reality.
Pyongyang has also threatened to "take the second and third stronger steps in succession."
"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," Park said during her inauguration speech. "I urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay and embark on the path to peace and shared development."
Park said she will try to foster trust between the two Koreas in a step-by-step manner based on strong deterrence. Trust can be built through dialogue and by honoring promises, she said, urging Pyongyang to "abide by international norms and make the right choice."
Park began her five-year term at midnight Sunday and took over as commander-in-chief of South Korea's armed forces. The inauguration day was rung in with a celebratory striking of the Boshingak bell at the center of Seoul at midnight.
Right after the clock struck midnight, Park spoke with Gen. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, via a presidential hotline set up at her private home in Samsungdong in southern Seoul, and told Jung to ensure military readiness against provocations.
Park also paid a visit to the national cemetery before attending the inauguration ceremony that drew such foreign guests as U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.
A set of cultural performances livened up the atmosphere ahead of the formal ceremony, with South Korean pop sensation Psy dancing and singing his trademark "Gangnam Style." Many in attendance also danced along to the viral tune.
Other challenges facing Park include how best to meet calls for "economic democratization," a cause that centers on reducing concentration of economic power in the hands of conglomerates and narrowing the wealth gap and other economic inequalities.
Park has pledged to put high priority on restoring the middle class, supporting small- and medium-sized firms and preventing conglomerates -- known as chaebol in Korean -- from abusing their power or expanding recklessly while preying on small shops.
On Monday, she stressed that "economic democratization" will be a key pillar of her economic policy, along with building "a creative economy" where science technology and the information technology industry will play central roles in the country's growth.
"In order for a creative economy to truly blossom, economic democratization must be achieved. I believe strongly that only when a fair market is firmly in place, can everyone dream of a better future and work to their fullest potential," Park said.
"One of my critical economic goals is to ensure that anyone who works hard can stand on their own two feet and where, through the support of policies designed to strengthen small and medium-sized enterprises, such businesses can prosper alongside large companies," she said.
Park said she is committed to "rooting out various unfair practices and rectifying the misguided habits of the past which have frustrated small business owners and small and medium-sized enterprises" so as to make a nation where "everyone can live up to their fullest potential, regardless of where they work or what they do for a living."
After the ceremony, Park sent off her precedessor Lee Myung-bak before heading off to the presidential office. She waved to well-wishers and bystanders lining the streets from an open-roof limousine as her motorcade passed through the city.
On the way to the presidential office, Park stopped at Gwanghwamun Square for a ceremony to unveil a tree loaded with memos containing wishes of the people. Dressed in a red "hanbok" dress with golden embroidery, Park read some of the wishes aloud and promised to work hard to meet their expectations.
Later in the day, she was scheduled to hold one-one-one meetings with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck and some other visiting dignitaries before hosting a dinner reception for all foreign guests.
Park entered politics as a lawmaker in 1998 and has since been elected to the National Assembly four more times. Her initial popularity was owed in large part to her strongman father revered by supporters as a hero who lifted South Korea out of poverty after the 1950-53 Korean War.
The elder Park's legacy has also worked in her disfavor as detractors criticize her as a "dictator's daughter." Her father seized power in a 1961 coup as a military general and ruled South Korea for 18 years until he was shot dead by his spy chief.
During last year's campaign, Park apologized for human rights violations committed under her father.
Before her father's death, Park served as a stand-in first lady for five years after her mother was killed by a pro-North Korean gunman from Japan in a failed assassination attempt on her father in 1974.
Like her father, who was a staunch anti-Communist, Park is also conservative on security and most other matters. But in 2002, when she was a lawmaker, Park made a visit to North Korea and held one-on-one talks with then leader Kim Jong-il.
As a politician, she has been known for often playing the role of a firefighter or a relief pitcher for the ruling party when it was mired in trouble and doomed to suffer a bruising defeat in key elections. She succeeded many times in pulling the party out of trouble and earned the nickname, "Queen of Elections."
After taking office, Park has to work with the old Cabinet for the time being, as her nominees for prime minister and other Cabinet members have yet to complete the parliamentary confirmation process. Her government reorganization proposal is also still pending in parliament.