S. Korea to swear in first woman president

SEOUL (AFP) - Ms Park Geun-Hye, the daughter of South Korea's late military ruler, will be sworn in as the country's first female president on Monday in a ceremony shadowed by North Korea's recent nuclear test.

As leader of Asia's fourth-largest economy, Ms Park, 61, faces significant challenges, including the belligerent regime in the North, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies.

Her inauguration speech is expected to focus on job creation, welfare expansion and national defence, while appealing for national unity at a time of growing concern with income and wealth disparity.

Ms Park had campaigned on a promise of greater, "trust-based" engagement with Pyongyang and her speech will be closely parsed for any indication of how she intends to handle North Korea at the beginning of her five-year term.

Observers say her hands have been tied by the international outcry over the North's Feb 12 nuclear test, which will have emboldened the hawks in her ruling conservative party who oppose closer engagement.

Ms Park is taking office a little more than 50 years after her father, Park Chung-He, seized power in a military coup.

He went on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next 18 years until his eventual assassination, and remains a divisive figure - credited with dragging the country out of poverty but reviled for his regime's human rights abuses.

His daughter's political career has always been shadowed by her father's legacy - a fact that has played both to her advantage and her detriment.

In an effort at reconciliation, she publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father's regime during her campaign and apologised to the families of its victims.

Park's mother was murdered five years before her father, and she has never married or had children.

She is adored by older conservative Koreans, who feel she shares her father's leadership qualities and view her as something of an ill-fated princess who lost both parents to assassination but managed to rise above the tragedy.

Critics accuse her of being autocratic and aloof and suggest her political legitimacy is largely derived from her background.

Kookmin University professor Jung Mi-Ae stressed that after Park's father was killed, she built her political brand alone before winning a national assembly seat in 1998.

"There's still a question mark over how Park will fare as a leader, but she's not some figurehead who came to power solely because of her father, either," Prof Jung said.

As South Korea's first-ever woman president, she will lead a country that is ranked below the likes of Suriname and the United Arab Emirates in gender equality.

South Korea's journey from war-torn poverty to Asia's fourth-largest economy has done little to break the male stranglehold on political and commercial power in what in many ways remains a very conservative nation.

Monday's two-and-a-half hour inauguration ceremony will include a 21-gun salute and a performance from Korean rapper Psy, whose song Gangnam Style was the global hit of 2012.

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