'Bulldozer' Promises Change in Korea

SEOUL, South Korea -- New South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office Monday with a promise to boost prosperity not only in his own country but in North Korea as well, provided that the communist state abandons its nuclear weapons.

"Economic revival is our most urgent task," Lee said in his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office as South Korea's first conservative president in a decade.

South Koreans gave the former high-profile construction executive -- nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his can-do image -- a landslide victory in December's election on his pledge to revitalize the economy and take a less conciliatory approach to nuclear-armed North Korea.

"We must move from the age of ideology into the age of pragmatism," Lee told some 60,000 people who gathered for his inauguration, taking a swipe at the past 10 years of liberal rule during which he said "we found ourselves faltering and confused."

Bursts of applause from the audience often interrupted Lee's address in front of the dome-roofed National Assembly building on a cold, overcast day.

The ceremony included a military parade, a 21-gun salute and a choir singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda were among dignitaries at the ceremony.

Lee, 66, also called for a stronger alliance with top ally Washington and implored North Korea to forgo its nuclear ambitions and open up to the outside world.

Lee said he would launch massive investment and aid projects in the North to increase its per capita income to $3,000 within a decade "once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness."

Lee is the 10th man to serve as South Korea's president and the first to come from a business background.

He wooed voters by promising to reach annual economic growth of 7 percent, double the country's per capita income to $40,000 over a decade and make South Korea one of the world's top seven economies.

South Korea's economy grew 4.9 percent last year and 5 percent the year before, but Lee says it has underperformed.

"I have high expectations that Lee Myung-bak will revive our economy," Cho Han-keum, who runs a shelter for elderly homeless people in Incheon city west of Seoul, said at the inauguration site.

Such hopes could end up being a burden, according to one analyst.

"One of the sternest challenges Mr. Lee will face is the weight of expectations he has manufactured," Daniel Melser, senior economist at Moody's Economy.com, said in a report, adding that "global economic conditions have soured even since Lee made this promise late last year."

In his first meeting with a foreign leader as president, Lee and Japan's Fukuda agreed to hold regular summits and consider reviving stalled free trade talks, both sides said.