S. Korean president inaugurated amid tension with North

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- Roh Moo-hyun took power as South Korea's president on Tuesday faced by the forces that will shape his coming months in office: North Korean defiance and U.S. determination to strip the communist regime of its nuclear weapons development.

Roh, a human rights lawyer untested on the global stage, laid out his vision of transforming his country into a peaceful and powerful economic hub in an inaugural speech just hours after news that North Korea fired a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan.

The new president then met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is trying to gather support in the region for persuading China, Russia and Japan to become more closely involved in negotiating an end to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Roh pledged to press ahead with his predecessor's policy of building ties with the North, while arguing for greater independence from the United States, his country's top ally and trading partner.

Both American and South Korean officials played down the missile launch. The missile landed harmlessly in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

"It seems to be a fairly innocuous kind of test," Powell said at a news conference. "It's a fairly old system."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the missile launch fit a pattern in which North Korea "engages in rather bizarre actions" as leverage for aid or to achieve some other goal.

"Typically at times of inaugural festivities, most nations send flowers or bouquets or visiting dignitaries. North Korea sent a short-range cruise missile," Fleischer quipped.

He added that "North Korea will not be rewarded for bad behavior."

Roh did not mention the test firing in his speech. But he warned that "the suspicion that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons poses a grave threat to world peace."

With Powell looking on, Roh said North Korea could win aid from the international community if it abandons its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Tensions have run high since October, when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program.

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