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To save a life in Seoul

leader Kim Dae Jung and others in a military court was anything but a mockery of justice. The very charge against Kim -- that he fomented the May riots in Kwangju -- rings false in view of the fact that he and his aides were already in jail when the uprising took place. The defendants did not have lawyers of their own choice. They told of brutal torture. Kim's own "confession" to sedition, later repudiated, came after weeks of interrogation under inhumane conditions. The predictable death sentence itself seemed almost anticlimatic, for it was clear from the moment he put himself in power that South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was determined to remove from the political scene the man who represented the single biggest threat to his dictatorial rule.

Like his predecessor, President Park, General Chun thus begins his stewardship of South Korea showing that he, too, is afraid of any stirrings of political opposition. The trial is yet another sad chapter of authoritarian history to all those who yearn to see the nation move gradually and peacefully toward the development of democracy.

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On the face of it, therefore, the cautious reaction by the United States to the death penalty is disappointing. Advocates of freedom everywhere would have liked to have heard a forthright and ringing voice of outrage at such blatant disregard of human rights.

Yet the legitimate concern now appears to be that of saving Kim's life. The State Department seems to feel that a public confrontation with Seoul would scuttle any chances for clemency as the Korean legal process continues through a higher military tribunal and then the Supreme Court. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie indicates "deep concern" about the trial but withholds comment. It is to be hoped this means that the US is making quiet but strong representations behind the scenes, and that it has some indication from the Koreans that the trial was merely a ritual and that President Chun will be amenable to a commutation of sentence or other accommodation on the issue. Such a scenario would not be out of keeping with the Korean need to save face and not be seen publicly submitting to outside pressures.

Yet it would be unfortunate if the US gave President Chun any grounds for thinking the Carter administration is wholeheartedly supportive of political developments in Korea. One cannot rule out that the Koreans will even wait until after the American elections before disposing of the Kim Dae Jung case just to see what approach an ostensibly tough-line Reagan presidency would take. It may be true that somem Koreans feel they "are not ready" for democracy, as President Carter has suggested. But the whole history of South Korea since the end of the Japanese occupation has revolved around repeated popular struggles against authoritarianism and oppression.

There arem forces of freedom in South Korea that need nourishing and the encouragement of the West. Not because we think political democracy is possible tomorrow or that all Koreans today want it. But because this is the inevitable yearning of the human spirit and ultimate road of mankind's forward progress. It is incumbent on the United States to keep that flame of freedom alive.

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