AFTER so many years of bad news and continuing hostilities on the divided Korean peninsula, Pyongyang's surprise release of the crew of a captured South Korean fishing trawler is a welcome New Year present. It is too early to say whether this will lead to an easing of tensions in the world's last remaining flashpoint from the Cold War. Kim Jong-il's reclusive regime is a master of the art of alternating bellicose behaviour with conciliatory gestures. Seoul is certainly not yet ready to relax its guard, warning yesterday that the seamen's release is not enough to justify resuming rice aid. But if their freeing is motivated by real economic need, rather than simply part of Pyongyang's psychological warfare, then it could signal the start of a genuine thaw in relations. North Korea is in a desperate plight. Still struggling with the effects of the desertion of its two longtime allies, Russia and China, its economic woes have been heightened by last summer's floods. These destroyed much of the grain crop and, for the first time, raise the spectre of mass starvation and civil unrest in a nation which still tries to portray itself as a workers' paradise. North Korea has attempted to find alternative sources of relief. It tried to mend fences with Japan and made diplomatic ties with the United States one condition for agreeing to scrap its nuclear reactors, capable of producing bomb-grade material. But, just as only South Korea was interested in financing the replacement light-water reactors which formed part of this accord, so Pyongyang may finally have woken up to the reality that it is only Seoul which is likely to help alleviate its desperate economic plight. Until now the obstacle to this has been the refusal to release the Usung-86 crew, whose seizure led to the suspension of rice aid earlier this year. Now this has been swept aside. South Korea would be wise to adopt a more flexible response than was evident yesterday. Pyongyang is still refusing to open a dialogue with Seoul. But rather than making this a pre-condition for resuming emergency food supplies, South Korea should set political considerations aside. Instead it should take the initiative in the humanitarian task of averting the threat of starvation among the country's compatriots in the North.