When Kim Dae Jung is sworn in as president Feb. 25, South Korea will celebrate its first peaceful transfer of power in more than 50 years and look to the veteran dissident to lead the country out of an acute financial crisis.
About 150 miles north, the Communists in North Korea will be watching, too - for hints of what they might extract from a president who is very different from his predecessors.
North Korea offered a tentative olive branch last week, broadcasting that they were "willing to have a dialogue and negotiation with anyone in South Korea, including political parties and organizations." It is the first sign that inter-Korean reconciliation may pick up after years of false starts.
What the North may really want from Mr. Kim is more food aid for its hungry people. It may also want him to ease anti-Communist laws that curb the North's supporters in the South.
The new president does plan to ease restrictions on private contacts with North Korea, spokesmen say. Such contacts have been strictly limited in the past for fear of subversion.
South Korean businessmen will be free to invest, scholars to research, sports teams to play, and tourists to vacation in North Korea. Already the Unification Ministry in Seoul has authorized an advertising company to use North Korean scenery and models in commercials. Also for the first time, a team of agricultural scientists visited North Korea last month, hoping to offer their help. Kim hopes such exchanges will ultimately lead to direct talks and the exchange of special envoys.
More important than policy changes will be a "change of attitude," says one Western observer. Kim Young Sam, the outgoing president, had much personal animosity toward North Korea. And no consistent policy, say critics.
One of the most emotional issues involves family reunions. About 10 million South Koreans have relatives in North Korea they haven't seen since the 1950-53 war. In a sign that North Korea is testing the water, Pyongyang this month announced plans to establish an "address information center" to help North Koreans find lost relatives.
Along with less propaganda, "there have been a few feelers" from the North, says the Western observer. A new atmosphere may become clearer next month when the two Koreas, China, and the United States resume their four-party talks to bring a permanent peace to the peninsula.
In the past, the North's peace overtures have come with conditions that Seoul eject the 37,000 US troops in South Korea. And most analysts say North Korea doesn't really want to talk but will plumb to see what benefits it can get.
This spring, commercial airlines flying to Seoul will be in the hands of North Korean air- traffic controllers on redrawn flight paths that pass into North Korean airspace, earning the country hard currency while saving airlines fuel.
They're "partially sincere. They're ready to grab more opportunities to get more money ... but they're very careful and they try to see what concessions the South would be willing to give," says Woo Jae Sung, president of The Freedom Center, a think tank in Seoul when asked about North Korea's willingness to talk.
While some hail Kim's progressive attitude toward the North, others are wary. He may stop jamming North Korean radio and TV. But conservatives worry that North Korea could brainwash South Koreans or use the momentum of labor strife to create social unrest in South Korea. "I don't think our society is really that immature to be swayed by the propaganda," says Mr. Woo. But with massive layoffs ahead and an insufficient social safety net, unrest is forecast. "We're not completely immune from social disturbances of the type Indonesia is now experiencing," says Woo.