When the world goes to the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, will it find more respect for human rights than is seen there now? Some hope is provided by the release from prison of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, currently visiting the United States. Another welcome step is the release of 1,200 lesser-known prisoners, including 48 political detainees, several of whom had been arrested with Mr. Kim in 1980. The question is whether the fundamental situation will change enough so that repression is replaced by democracy rather than turned on and off around the edges as various pressures sway the Seoul regime.
This time the United States is taking credit for quiet diplomacy beginning at the end of the Carter administration and continuing through such channels as Defense Secretary Weinberger's trip to South Korea earlier this year. Commuting Kim's death sentence set the stage for President Chun Doo Hwan's visit to President Reagan in 1981. His release now eases Secretary of State Shultz's visit to Seoul in February.
But US efforts on Mr. Kim's behalf go back earlier. It is said that, when South Korean authorities kidnapped him from Japan in 1973, the weights were already attached to his legs for dumping overboard when guess who came to the diplomatic rescue along with Japanese officals? Philip Habib, then the US ambassador to South Korea, the same Habib now seeking peace in the Middle East.
So Americans can feel some satisfaction in what their government has done for South Korea's democratic stirrings over the years. And many South Koreans appreciate this, even though Mr. Kim told a US interviewer that most of them now feel betrayed by the US government for failing to make clear that it is on the side of democracy.