THE atmosphere in Seoul and Tokyo is, without doubt, calmer and more relaxed after former President Carter's trip to North Korea.
But yesterday, as Mr. Carter flew back to the US, officials and analysts in East Asia were scrutinizing the outcome of his visit with a morning-after clarity. They wonder if anything has really changed in the standoff over whether North Korea is building atomic bombs.
Carter's meetings with North Korean ``Great Leader'' Kim Il Sung produced a North Korean pledge to freeze its controversial nuclear program if the US agrees to participate in high-level talks with Pyongyang. In a message conveyed by Carter, Mr. Kim also invited his South Korean counterpart, President Kim Young Sam, to a summit meeting. The South Korean leader immediately agreed.
Carter went to Pyongyang to try to defuse rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. Last week the US began an earnest effort to have the United Nations Security Council impose sanctions on the North in order to force the country to prove that it is not developing nuclear weapons. The North calls inspections a violation of its sovereignty and insists its nuclear activities are peaceful.
Over the weekend, some observers were calling Carter's mediation of the crisis a breakthrough, but a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official said that he could not comment on whether the North Korean leader's comments represented any significant concessions.
The North Koreans have said before that they were willing to put their program on hold in exchange for continued bilateral talks with the United States. And the two Koreas have previously danced around the idea of summit.
Kim Il Sung's overture this weekend was actually a response to a summit invitation voiced by Kim Young Sam in early 1993. ``We haven't quite confirmed Kim Il Sung's real intent to hold the summit,'' the South Korean official said, asking that his name not be used.
``I personally hold [the prospects for a summit] rather doubtful,'' says Lee Dong Bok, a former South Korean presidential adviser on North Korea who left the government last year over policy differences. Mr. Lee calls himself a pragmatist; others call him a hard-liner.
Some analysts say the North is using the international uncertainty over its nuclear intentions as a way of winning respect. These observers say that a visit by a former US president has offered Mr. Kim the recognition he seeks and that now a solution to the standoff will be forthcoming.
Mr. Lee, for one, rejects these analyses of North Korea's actions. `` `Face' is not necessarily the central core element in their process of conducting negotiations.''
He asserts that the North is using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip in order to exact large concessions from the US - a scaling back of the American relationship with South Korea along with sorely needed economic and technological assistance.
Carter's visit has not altered this agenda, Lee says. ``I don't see any new elements ... in what Kim Il Sung'' said to Carter, he concludes. He argues that the North's demands are so untenable that any bilateral attempt to resolve the dispute will fail, and that the international community must together force the North Koreans to open their nuclear sites to full inspections.
Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Tokyo's Keio University, agrees. ``I can't clearly point out what changed [in the North Korean position] before and after Carter's visit.''
Professor Okonogi is relieved that Carter's intervention has dissipated the air of confrontation that was building last week. He likens Carter to a fireman who has dumped water on the flames. But underneath, he says, the fire continues to burn.