SEOUL, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Roh Moo-hyun, sworn in as South Korean president Tuesday, vowed to bring peace and prosperity to the divided peninsula by staunchly seeking reconciliation with North Korea.
But his peace initiatives were overshadowed by North Korea's launch of a missile into the sea near the peninsula on the eve of Roh's inauguration.
In an inaugural speech, Roh vowed to seek a policy of "peace and prosperity" during his five-year term and make all-out efforts to improve ties with the North.
"We have to change the peninsula into a land that sends out messages of peace to the rest of the world. It has to be reborn as East Asia's gateway of peace," he told some 45,000 people who gathered in front of the National Assembly building to celebrate Roh's inauguration.
The reformist leader vowed to continue Kim Dae-jung's peaceful engagement with North Korea despite Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.
"Global concern is rising over the North Korea nuclear issue. This is the time to make a determined effort to safeguard peace and have it firmly rooted on the peninsula," Roh said.
Roh also urged North Korea to give up its atomic ambitions, saying they pose "a grave threat" to peace on the peninsula and in the world.
"North Korea's nuclear development can never be condoned. If it renounces its nuclear development program, the international community will offer many things that it wants," he said.
"It is up to Pyongyang whether to go ahead and obtain nuclear weapons or to get guarantees for the security of its regime and international economic support."
Roh's aides said the new government would push for a "grand plan" to help reconstruct North Korea's ruined industry, aiming to unite the two Koreas into a single economic community.
The new leader made clear his opposition to U.S. military action against North Korea, triggering policy rifts with the Bush administration in handling the nuclear standoff.
Roh has said he was willing to differ with the United States in order to prevent a war on the peninsula, while Bush says "all options are on the table," including military action against North Korea.
Roh, who once called for the withdrawal of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, also has vowed not to "kowtow" to Washington and negotiate a more "balanced" relations with the main ally and trade partner for half a century.
However, in an apparent bid to calm conservatives' security nerves, Roh in the inaugural address, stressed importance of strong security ties with the United States: "It (the alliance) has made a significant contribution in guaranteeing our society and economic development. The Korean people are deeply grateful for this."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other dignitaries gathered for the swearing-in ceremony.
"The major challenge to the new president will be how to overcome the differences with the United States while discouraging North Korea from seeking nuclear weapons," said Kim Tae-hyun, a Chung-Ang University professor.
Roh's ambitious peace initiatives suffered a first blow as North Korea fired a missile into a sea off the east coast of the peninsula, placing South Korea's military on alert.
A land-to-ship missile was fired Monday into international waters in the Sea of Japan (the East Sea), defense ministry officials announced shortly before Roh was to take office.
They declined to comment further about the type of missile fired and about its range and why the ministry did not immediately announce the missile test Monday afternoon.
"The only information we have now is that a missile was fired from an unknown location in North Korea into the East Sea (Sea of Japan)," a defense official told United Press International.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the ministry was trying to determine "whether it was designed to test a new missile or just part of an military exercise." Hwang Young-soo, the defense ministry spokesman, downplayed the missile launch, saying North Korea has usually launched a land-to-ship missile during its annual winter military drills.
North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile testing after it rattled South Korea and Japan in 1998 when it test-fired a ballistic missile over Japan. North Korea has recently hinted it may resume missile launch amid the nuclear standoff.