KWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA, OCT. 21 -- Ruling party leader Roh Tae Woo carried a message of reconciliation into this stronghold of government opposition today, but received a tepid response, showing the challenge he faces in his campaign to be elected president of South Korea.

Roh met small, unenthusiastic and, at times, hostile crowds as he toured this provincial capital, site of a major uprising against the military government in 1980 and stronghold of support for opposition leader Kim Dae Jung. Roh's reception contrasted sharply with the huge and good-natured crowds that greeted Kim here last month and met opposition leader Kim Young Sam in his hometown of Pusan Saturday.

Campaign aides to Roh, who will be the ruling party candidate in the December presidential election, stressed that Roh is not seeking to compete with the two Kims in attracting huge crowds. They said he should be praised for venturing into unfriendly territory in an effort to ease the bitterness that courses through this nation's politics.

"When we go to other areas, the response is very different," said Hyun Hong Choo, deputy secretary general of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. "This is Kwangju. It's very understandable."

When a group of Army generals, including Roh and current President Chun Doo Hwan, seized power in a 1980 coup, soldiers here gunned down large numbers of unarmed protesters. The government acknowledged killing about 200 civilians; many Kwangju residents insisted that 2,000 died.

The government never apologized for the incident. Instead, it branded the casualties lawless rebels, and Kwangju became a rallying cry for opponents of the Chun regime.

Now Chun has promised to step down as president, and his comrade, party president Roh, is seeking to succeed him in South Korea's first free election in 16 years. Roh met with relatives of the Kwangju victims today and promised to erect a monument in their honor and pay financial compensation if he is elected.

His appeal won support from some, but many others remained hostile. Several mothers of youths killed in the Kwangju uprising pelted him with eggs and shouted, "Murderer go home," as he entered a gymnasium for an indoor rally this morning.

Roh was spattered but unharmed, and he later shrugged off the incident as a "spicy byproduct on our road to democratization."

After his speech in the Kwangju gymnasium, Roh was to deliver another speech in an eastern suburb of the city. But an unidentified assailant threw a tear-gas grenade near Roh moments before he was to give the outdoor speech. It did not hit Roh, but exploded near the speaker's lectern, spreading tear gas around the area.

Roh was quickly hustled away by security guards without giving his speech. Before leaving, he reportedly said to the crowd, "I will not retreat from the task of realizing the nation's democratic development."

But Roh seemed to generate little support, even among those who turned out to greet him. A 25-year-old teacher trainee said she had come only out of curiosity and that most of the other dozens of onlookers were party or government officials.

"If he tried to hold a mass rally here like Kim Dae Jung, stones would pour down on him," she said.

An outdoor rally in Kwangju that planners had said would draw 22,000 well-wishers attracted only a fraction of that number. As Roh motored through in an open truck, nobody clapped or cheered.

But more than 20,000 party members attended Roh's indoor rally and cheered his call for reconciliation.