Release of dissident poet Kim Chi Ha heightens concern about the fate of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, whose appeal against the death sentence is being weighed by South Korea's Supreme Court.
Poet Kim enjoyed an ecstatic reunion with his wife, mother, and seven-year-old son after a two-hour ride in the dark of dawn from jail in Seoul to his home in Wonju. He had served about one-third of a 20-year sentence.
Politician Kim remains in prison awaiting the Supreme Court's decision. If, as is widely expected, the Supreme Court confirms the original verdict, only President Chun Doo Hwan can save Mr. Kim by exercising his constitutional prerogative of clemency.
US Defense Secretary Harold Brown will visit Seoul briefly Dec. 13, reportedly to convey President Carter's feelings about the unhappy consequences of Mr. Kim's execution.
Some observers here think that poet Kim's release was designed to help South Korea's tarnished international image and at least partially to offset the uproar that would be caused overseas by the execution of politician Kim, South Korea's most celebrated political dissident.
There can be no doubt in the minds of South Korea's present military leadership that the international consequences of such an execution would hurt their country, certainly in the short term and perhaps in the longer term as well.
American, Japanese, West German, British, and other governments have indicated in various ways that the execution of Mr. Kim would sour relations between Seoul and its principal allies and economic partners at a time when the faltering South Korean economy needs the confidence and help of the international economic community.
In the long run, even the US security commitment can be affected by the fraying of the support this commitment requires from Congress and the American public.
No one in the diplomatic community will say these things explicitly, for fear of being pilloried in the tightly controlled and censored Korean press as intruders in domestic Korean affairs. But relations between South Korea and its two most important friends, the United States and Japan, are severely strained.
South Korean government sources spiritedly defend Mr. Kim's trial as having been fair and the verdict as justifiable. They charge Mr. Kim with being criminally responsible for the student riots that preceded the imposition of full martial law last May, as well as for the Kwangju rebellion that followed.
Public opinion on the subject is more complex. The majority of South Koreans is solidly anticommunist. To the extent the government can convince ordinary citizens that Mr. Kim was a disguised communist, or sympathetic to communism, these citizens may accept the death sentence as inevitable.
At the same time, Mr. Kim has a core of supporters, among students and intellectuals, within the Christian community, among workers, and in his home province of Cholla.There is little overt evidence that his execution would spark widespread protests or disorder, but the very fact that the government has so severely limited all forms of public expression suggests continuing nervousness on the part of those in authority.