SEOUL -- Tens of thousands of South Korean students recently packed themselves into the main stadium of the Olympic sports complex here, screaming out chorus after chorus of deafening chants.

The rally had the look and feel of one of the countless antigovernment protests that caused such tumult and political change here this year. But, in fact, the gathering had little to do with politics.

The students were celebrating the end of a five-day sports contest and cultural festival earlier this fall between the country's two top private universities, Yonsei and Korea.

The festival was a time for the battle-weary students to relax, a time to stop throwing rocks and stop worrying about choking on tear gas. Coming amid a tumultuous year of protests, it was an unusual occasion at which the students could shed their serious political faces and show their other side. "This is for fun and friendship," yelled Lee Sung Hyuk, a sophomore studying architecture at Yonsei.

In many ways, the festival also showed the tenuous new atmosphere of moderation among students and, to a certain degree, among elements of the government. Some protest banners were unfurled on a march from the stadium to a nearby park, but the political messages were relatively mild and the mood was thoroughly peaceful. Last year, in contrast, the march was prohibited, and there was a nasty clash when police fired tear gas to disperse the students as they left the stadium.

By displaying hints of moderation, the student festival exemplified the fragile modus vivendi that has emerged since the government bowed to protests in June and agreed to wide-ranging reforms. Many students now appear willing to shun violence and mass protests so long as the government allows a looser political atmosphere and permits a direct presidential election, planned for December, to proceed.

Although some large and occasionally violent student demonstrations have broken out this fall, the expected wave of massive nationwide protests has not materialized.

Celebration, not protest, was clearly the buzz word at the rally. Breaking a four-year losing streak, Korea University came out on top by winning three of the five athletic events. But students from both campuses celebrated with equal enthusiasm. Yonsei won the rugby and soccer matches, but fell to Korea in the baseball, basketball and hockey games.

After the rally, the students marched about a mile to a large park on the shore of the Han River, where they sat lazily in small and large groups, basking under the blue skies and afternoon sunshine. Their spirit was playful. The highlight of the afternoon in the park was a mass tug-of-war between the two schools.

"This is wild," remarked John Park, a Korean-American who was making his first trip back to South Korea since leaving nearly 20 years ago. "Whenever I watched Ted Koppel on {the ABC news program} 'Nightline,' all I saw was students at political demonstrations," said Park. "But this is like a big block party."

Indeed, the rally and game-playing had little in common with the violent demonstrations that have recently filled television screens and newspapers in the United States. Politics, however, was not ignored. There were protest banners and chants during the march, and students also interrupted the game-playing at sunset to link arms and sing protest songs.

The festival was preceded by several days of politically tinged cultural events. Films were shown about the June protests; some antigovernment and anti-American skits were performed, and a mock trial was staged over the government's use of tear gas, according to the students. Many of the events were unofficially dedicated to two students: a Yonsei student who died this summer from head injuries after he was hit by a tear-gas canister, and Woo Sang Ho, the imprisoned president of the Yonsei student body.

But the overall tone was mild, reflecting the students' caution following the changes announced in June and the government's more tolerant attitude. "After 500 yards from the stadium, we got tear-gassed last year," recalled Hwang Ki Chan, a junior at Yonsei. "But this year we came all the way to the park without problems. I'm happy about that."

At a memorial service last month marking the 100-day anniversary of the death of the student killed by shrapnel, only about 1,000 students showed up. About 400 of the students later clashed with riot police, a relatively small number given the potential volatility of the event.

In separate interviews, several groups of students explained why the expected wave of protests has not taken place. The protests were forecast to center on the jailing of Woo, the 24-year-old Yonsei student leader. He was imprisoned recently for slandering the government in an interview with foreign journalists. He compared the military-backed government of President Chun Doo Hwan to Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

According to In Ho, a Korea University student who asked that only his first name be printed, the students believe that massive and violent demonstrations, like those in June, could now upset the fragile movement toward democratic elections. Although the students are angry about Woo's continued detention, he said, the protests necessary to accomplish his release could cause the kind of tumult that would prompt military intervention. "There are too many risks," he said.

This does not mean the students are off the streets for good. In Ho warned that if the military or the government tries to subvert the democratic process, the students will once again take to the streets. He also said the protests will resume if Roh Tae Woo, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, wins the elections. Roh is a former general who participated in the coup that brought President Chun to full power seven years ago.