The election of Kim Dae Jung as South Korea's next president offers the Clinton administration new opportunities to achieve its goal of bringing peace, or at least a reduction in military tensions, to the Korean peninsula, U.S. officials and independent scholars said Friday.
Indeed, Kim himself, in his first news conference, said he will attempt to break down barriers between the two Koreas and favors resumption of "inter-Korean dialogue," perhaps even meeting with his counterpart from the North.
In his years as a foe of military governments in Seoul, he had already favored new initiatives toward North Korea. And in this year's campaign, he criticized President Kim Young Sam for flip-flopping in his approach to the North.
"I would expect there will be a North-South summit in the first six months of 1998," said Donald P. Gregg, who served in Seoul both as CIA station chief and U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who met with Kim in a visit to Seoul last week, asserted: "Kim Dae Jung is not just another South Korean political leader rising to the presidency. He's a potentially historic figure. If there were ever a chance for a major change in North-South relations, it is now upon us."
In recent days, North Korea's isolated Communist regime has sent signals to the United States of a possible willingness to be more open.
This week, the Pyongyang regime dispatched its United Nations ambassador to talk with scholars and policy experts in Washington. It also purchased a full-page color advertisement in the New York Times to tout the nation's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, as "the lodestar for sailing the 21st century."
Although these efforts may be a mere public relations offensive aimed at winning more food and aid for North Korea's impoverished economy, some scholars say there is a chance Pyongyang might be receptive to changing its policy toward South Korea as well.
"Kim Jong Il is trying to project himself as a new leader with a new perspective," said Carter Eckert, director of the Korea Institute at Harvard University. "In South Korea, just the change in regime is good. This could be a really historic opportunity, if both sides are willing to seize it."
U.S. policy is based on encouraging the two Korean governments to continue the four-party talks--with the United States and China--that have just opened in Geneva.
The goal is to bring about a formal peace settlement of the Korean War, which ended with an armistice 44 years ago.
Many South Korean officials believe that North Korea is not serious about these talks. Instead, they suspect that Pyongyang wants to forge a new relationship with the United States while minimizing the role of South Korea.
Jonathan Pollack, an expert on Asian security issues at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, said there is "a lot of sensitivity in South Korea about being shut out or shunted aside," as the Clinton administration has dealt more frequently with North Korea.
Now, Kim's election changes the dynamics in this diplomacy, opening the possibility of a new initiative from Seoul.
The administration must decide how a possible summit between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il will fit into its efforts to reach a peace settlement.
The closest the two Korean governments ever came to a summit was in 1994, when South Korean President Kim Young Sam and Kim Il Sung, North Korea's longtime leader, were weeks away from a scheduled meeting.
But Kim Il Sung died before that summit could take place. The plans then evaporated when North Korea complained bitterly that the South Korean president failed to send condolences or show proper respect for Kim Il Sung.
Pyongyang ruled out any summit until after Kim Young Sam left office.
"Presumably, [Kim Dae Jung] is going to want summitry, and the North is going to respond positively," said Douglas Paal, a former Bush administration official now with the Asia-Pacific Policy Center, a Washington think tank.
However, he added that "the United States would not like to see the four-party talks abandoned in favor of summitry," which might not result in any lasting changes.
Throughout his career, Kim Dae Jung has often been accused by South Korean conservatives of being sympathetic to North Korea or even of being an agent of Pyongyang.
There has never been evidence to substantiate this allegation, and some American scholars believe that North Korea will find it harder to negotiate with him than with any other South Korean leader.
"He's not an ex-general, he can't be painted as a tool of the chaebol [corporations], he's a committed Christian, he comes with his own thought," said Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "He can't be dismissed like other presidents. He will be a tougher opponent for the North to deal with."
Kim also has strong ties to the United States.
In the early 1980s, he lived in this country for more than three years. And U.S. officials intervened at least twice to save his life when South Korean leaders targeted him for death.
In one respect, Kim Dae Jung will represent continuity with the policy of his predecessors, U.S. officials believe. Kim has said he supports continuation of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops are now stationed.
The president-elect is not without drawbacks, in the view of the experts.
Some worry, for instance, about his campaign alliance with Kim Jong Pil, who helped create South Korea's intelligence apparatus.
"Kim Jong Pil has a different attitude toward North Korea, more conservative, more suspicious, less willing to engage," Eckert said.
Moreover, the president-elect does not seem to have a core of experienced advisors.
"How they divvy up jobs is important," Pollack said. "The issue right now is whether Kim Dae Jung can actually cobble together an effective working team."
Still, U.S. experts voice optimism that Kim Dae Jung will be able to help ease tensions with North Korea--which still maintains an army of 1.1 million troops, many of them deployed close to the demilitarized zone that separates North from South.