SEOUL, JAN. 28 -- President-elect Roh Tae Woo, still a month away from taking over in this nation's first peaceful transition of power, has moved adeptly to consolidate his authority and persuade South Koreans that his regime will inaugurate a more democratic era, according to supporters and opponents here.
The ruling party leader and a retired general, Roh has gone out of his way to behave differently from what Koreans have come to expect of their leaders and retired senior military officers. From the moment of his victory Dec. 16, when he banned ostentatious celebrations and rejected a bulletproof Cadillac, Roh has continued to hone the "ordinary man" image that helped elect him.
The substantive tests of his sincerity lie ahead, and many Koreans remain skeptical of his commitment to democracy. But even the skeptics praise his largely symbolic decisions so far, such as inviting the opposition into his government while promising to keep his relatives out.
"He's smart, he's doing the right things, he hasn't backpedaled on any of his promises," a western diplomat said. "People are saying this man could be the best president this country ever had."
At Roh's party headquarters, aides are well aware that the major challenges are yet to come. "So far, so good" is as far as spokesman Koo Chang Lim will go.
Indeed, the handicaps Roh carried on election night remain. He is a minority president, elected with 37 percent of the vote, assuming office amid rising economic and political expectations.
He has promised to change the fundamental nature of this nation's politics, ending a tradition of military-dominated rule. In doing so, he must satisfy his skeptical and impatient critics on the left without unsettling too greatly his suspicious and recalcitrant supporters on the right.
But Roh is already far ahead of what many predicted for him before Dec. 16. Opposition leaders said his election would spark a popular uprising by citizens who considered him a cog in the current unpopular regime; people in some parts of the country began hoarding rice and other staples.
Instead, the opposition remains adrift, demoralized and divided, and Roh has managed to keep the high ground on the one issue the opposition could always claim, democratization. His early success has led some politicians here to wonder whether Roh's Democratic Justice Party might succeed in establishing a Japan-style democracy, with a conservative party ruling for decades while a divided opposition provides democratic window-dressing.
"That is my nightmare," said opposition legislator Hong Sa Duk. "And frankly speaking, they are closing in on realizing that dream -- their dream, my nightmare."
Partly, Roh has been lucky. The fast-growing economy remains strong, the September Seoul Olympics are shaping up to be the biggest ever, incumbent President Chun Doo Hwan has stayed tactfully in the shadows and the opposition is paralyzed.
"Everything's coming up roses for him," the diplomat said.
But more than luck is at work, several observers said. "He's doing everything he can to show he will keep his promises," said a newspaper editor here.
Roh has promised to trim the imperious staff of the presidential Blue House from 10 to six secretariats. He has appointed new leaders to the ruling party, choosing men with "soft images" and no military past.
For his inauguration, he has banned lavish parties in hotels and is planning a simple swearing-in Feb. 25 with invitees from all walks of life. The government office that used to "coordinate" television and newspaper coverage has been abolished and, although the employees remain in the Information Ministry, "the atmosphere is 100 percent different," the editor said.
A former national police chief has been arrested for allegedly covering up the torture death of a student activist. Roh has promised to restore the ranks that were stripped from the generals whom Roh helped Chun overthrow in a 1979 coup.
Roh also appointed a "reconciliation commission" that has been charged with healing the wounds of South Korea's turbulent political past, including those caused by Chun, Roh and their regime.
Most of all, he has continued to project an image of a man willing to listen, a relaxed man with "big ears," in stark contrast to the stiff, lecturing style that most Koreans associate with Chun.
But, reflecting widespread sentiment here, the editor said, "Let's wait and see after the inauguration."
Early on, Roh will face difficult tests. He has promised a sweeping amnesty for political prisoners; Chun promised the same last July, but many remain in jail.
Roh has promised that his party will field a slate of new-breed politicians in National Assembly elections now expected to take place in March or April. But he will offend many influential people if he drops half of the party's incumbents, as his aides have suggested.
Roh also has promised independence for the nation's television networks, which are government-owned and, it is widely agreed, were markedly biased during the election. But it is unclear whether the government is prepared to live with an aggressive press.
Roh is certain to face labor strife in the spring, when newly active unions claim a larger share of South Korea's growing prosperity. And he must deliver on promises to allow local elections in a nation where everyone from governor to village chief is appointed from Seoul.
He also has promised to reform the nation's intelligence agencies, curbing torture and lessening their intrusive presence in domestic life.
"The police will resist reorganization," said opposition Rep. Lee Chul. "Cleaning up all the bad traditions, the torture -- this will be very difficult to carry out."
Most observers believe Roh will proceed deliberately with his reforms, "not pushing the pace so fast that he would cause a reaction," as the diplomat said. They say the nation will give him time -- perhaps the seven months from his inauguration to the end of the Olympics.
"Then, the political troubles will start again," the editor said. "If he has gone back to the old ways, there will be turmoil, and he will be finished. If he sticks to the new ways, all of the opposition's agitation then will accomplish nothing."