AFTER only a few months in office, the new president of South Korea, Roh Tae Woo, is proving one of the most intriguing leaders in Asia. Mr. Roh comes from the political party that has long been autocratically dominant in South Korea, and from the military class that has long ruled with a benignly authoritarian grip. But as a man bred in the conservative political tradition, he is presiding over remarkably speedy change that has propelled South Korea far down the road to democratic reform and liberalization.
In the face of strong opposition to his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, Roh was thrust forward as a kind of establishment candidate and then surprised many by promising sweeping change. He won the presidency in direct elections after promising much more freedom. Now Roh has taken another dramatic initiative by suggesting a new South Korean approach to North Korea.
The two societies could hardly be more different.
Physically, North and South are separated by a demilitarized zone on either side of which powerful armies wait and watch suspiciously.
Ideologically, North Korea is an austere Marxist land whose economy creaks and groans with inefficiency and shortage. By contrast South Korea, an eager child of the free-enterprise system, has become an enormously successful industrialized nation.
Politically, North Korea is ruled by the elderly communist dictator Kim Il Sung. His plans to turn over power to a son of questionable ability are, as one Western diplomat puts it, ``the scandal of the communist world.'' South Korea, by contrast, is emerging from a lively but peaceful transition from military-controlled government to democracy.
Now, even with relations between the two Koreas so bad, Roh has recommended a new approach. He has abandoned the policy of isolating North Korea and says he is ready to help integrate the North into the international community.
That may be good politics at home. Despite some outraged rumblings from the right, many younger Koreans with no personal experience of the Korean war urge a dialogue with North Korea. Even many South Koreans with a bitter contempt for communism have a sentimental yearning for reunification. The United States has long favored some kind of dialogue on certain conditions. The Washington thesis is that it is better for two hostile nations to be talking rather than simply confronting each other with force. But the new South Korean initiative may be particularly directed toward Communist China and the Soviet Union, both of which have been mentors of the North, but with both of which South Korea has been developing economic and cultural ties.
Two-way trade between China and South Korea now is close to $2 billion a year. Trade with the USSR is about a tenth of that. The USSR supplies North Korea with SA-5 missiles and MIG-29 warplanes and enjoys in return special overflight and port-of-call privileges for its planes and ships.
Both the Chinese and Soviets are, however, quick to assert privately that their influence on North Korea is limited. Whatever South Korea can do to lessen their ties with the North and increase contacts with the South is clearly in South Korea's interest. Despite North Korean irritation, for instance, both the USSR and China are participating in the Olympic Games starting in Seoul, the South Korean capital, in September. Only Fidel Castro's Cuba among communist countries has heeded the North Korean boycott call.
Whether Mr. Sung will grasp the hand being extended to him from the South remains to be seen. But response or no response, Roh is notching up a record as a leader willing to experiment and innovate.