With bell ringing and midnight briefing, Yoon Suk-yeol becomes Korea's 20th president
He also announced a new program of incentives to get North Korea to denuclearize.
Yoon began his duties as president with a briefing at midnight in an underground bunker of the new presidential office building in Yongsan District, central Seoul.
His official inauguration ceremony began at 11 a.m. at the plaza in front of National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul, and was attended by some 41,000 people including former presidents, lawmakers, government officials, foreign dignitaries and representatives of all walks of life.
"It is our generation's calling to build a nation that espouses liberal democracy and ensures a thriving market economy, a nation that fulfills its responsibility as a trusted member of the international community, and a nation that truly belongs to the people," he said in his inaugural address.
Yoon also delivered a message to North Korea, promising an "audacious plan" to help Pyongyang's economy in exchange for steps towards denuclearization.
"Peace is not simply avoiding war — real peace is about allowing freedom and prosperity to flourish," said Yoon. "Real peace is a lasting peace. Real peace is a sustainable peace."
Yoon said that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is a threat to regional security, but "the door to dialogue will remain open" for a peaceful resolution.
"If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea's economy and improve the quality of life for its people."
The keyword in Yoon's inaugural address was "freedom," repeated term 35 times. He also mentioned the terms "citizen" and "the people" 15 times each.
"Liberal democracy creates lasting peace and peace is what safeguards our freedom," said Yoon. "Peace is guaranteed when the international community that respects freedom and human rights come together as one."
Yoon faces various challenges, including dealing with a post-pandemic economic recovery, escalating North Korean missile threats and trying to unite a politically polarized nation. His conservative People Power Party (PPP) holds a minority in the National Assembly and the rival Democratic Party (DP) has a super-majority of 168 out of 300 seats. The PPP holds 109 seats. The June 1 local elections and by-elections are just three week away.
Addressing such concerns, Yoon said, "Our society is plagued by division and social conflict which is threatening our freedom and our liberal democratic order. It is undermining our potential to attain greater societal advancement."
He said that "rapid and sustainable growth" will open up new opportunities by "improving social mobility" and helping to get "rid of the fundamental obstacles that are aggravating social divide and conflicts."
Yoon noted Korea's record-low growth and rising unemployment, gaps in wages and polarization within society. He also pointed to various crises around the world including the Covid-19 pandemic; disruptions in global supply chains; climate change; the food and energy crises; and armed conflicts.
Yoon said that Korea must answer the international call to take on a "greater role befitting our stature as a global leader" and as the 10th largest economy in the world.
"We must take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves but also for others," said Yoon. "The international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call."
Yoon concluded, "I solemnly pledge today that I will do my utmost to elevate Korea into a country that truly belongs to the people. A country based on the pillars of freedom, human rights, fairness and solidarity; a country that is respected by others around the world. Let us embark on this journey together."
Yoon took his oath and was given a 21-gun salute by an honor guard during the hour-long ceremony.
In attendance was former President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook, and former President Park Geun-hye, who traveled from her hometown of Daegu.
Foreign dignitaries at Yoon's inauguration included Douglas Emhoff, husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, Singaporean President Halimah Yacob, Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and George Furey, speaker of the Senate of Canada.
Yoon kicked off his five-year term at midnight by receiving a security briefing from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) as Korea's new commander-in-chief in an underground bunker of the new presidential office building in Yongsan District, central Seoul.
He received a call from Defense Minister Suh Wook to symbolically mark the transfer of power from his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. JCS Chairman Won In-choul briefed Yoon on North Korea and the South Korean military's readiness posture.
At the stroke of midnight, a bell-ringing ceremony took place at the Bosingak Pavilion in Jongno District in central Seoul. The bell was struck 33 times to welcome South Korea's 20th president. The ceremony was attended by 20 representatives of various sectors of Korean society including a naturalized citizen, a planetary scientist and a North Korean defector.
Yoon and his wife Kim Keon-hee visited the Seoul National Cemetery, the resting place of past presidents and Korean heroes, in Dongjak District, southern Seoul, as their first official task Tuesday morning. Yoon is commuting to work from his residence in Seocho District, southern Seoul, until the new presidential residence, previously used by the foreign minister, is remodeled.
After his inauguration at the National Assembly, Yoon headed to the Yongsan presidential office at noon and got straight to work.
Yoon formally appointed seven ministers as his first task.
The seven ministers are: Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho, Science and ICT Minister Lee Jong-ho, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, Environment Minister Han Wha-jin, Labor Minister Lee Jeong-sik, Agriculture Minister Chung Hwang-keun and Oceans Minister Cho Seung-hwan. He also formally signed a motion for the parliamentary confirmation of Han Duck-soo, his prime minister nominee.
Yoon further signed off on appointments of his chief of staff, five senior presidential secretaries, national security adviser, Presidential Security Service chief and vice ministers.
Emhoff, the head of an eight-member delegation, delivered to Yoon a congratulatory letter from U.S. President Joe Biden outlining his intention to work closely together. Biden is due to make a visit to Seoul later this month for a summit with Yoon.
Yoon stressed the Korea-U.S. alliance as the "linchpin of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia" and the "most successful model case."
Hayashi gave Yoon a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Yoon also met with the head of the United Arab Emirates' delegation, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi.
In between the back-to-back meetings, Yoon returned to the National Assembly to attend celebratory events.
Yoon and first lady Kim also briefly greeted locals and children in Yongsan in keeping with his promise to be more approachable to the public.
Around 160 guests attended the banquet, including foreign dignitaries, officials and political leaders.
Business leaders also attended the dinner banquet including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Euisun, LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo and Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin.
Yoon, 61, a political rookie who hails from a public prosecutor background, narrowly beat his liberal rival Lee Jae-myung in the March 9 presidential election.
A son of professors, Seoul-born Yoon studied law at the prestigious Seoul National University and passed the bar exam on his ninth try.
Yoon served as prosecutor general in the Moon Jae-in administration from 2019 to May 2021 and is recognized for successfully pursuing high-profile corruption and abuse of power cases involving figures from the previous administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.
After stepping down as prosecutor general over one year ago, Yoon declared his presidential bid in June and became the unlikely conservative presidential nominee after winning the PPP primary last November.
Yoon's inauguration also coincided with the official opening of the Blue House to the public after 74 years, in keeping with his campaign pledge to return the compound to the people.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]