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Will Harvard give refuge to leader of South Korea's political opposition?

A cautious courtship is under way between South Korea's most famous opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, and one of America's most famous universities - Harvard. The results may spotlight the sometimes fruitful, sometimes uneasy relationship between the zeal of politics and the caution of scholarship.

The question seems simple: Will South Korean oppositionist Mr. Kim, who came to the United States last December after his release from a South Korean prison, find refuge as a research fellow at Harvard? Given Kim's fame, the answer would seem simple. But the same determined political activism in the cause of Korean democracy that has made Kim a respected figure to many at Harvard has also given him the label ''handle with care.''

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Here is the rub: Harvard University will not accept Kim in the usually unpaid status of research fellow unless there is a clear understanding that Harvard will not be used as a ''political base,'' according to a number of Harvard faculty members and administrators.

Although one scholar close to the issue maintained that the necessary understanding already exists, others said there are serious, perhaps growing, doubts that Kim could accept the kind of conditions required by Harvard.

Kim's case spotlights a recurring issue quietly faced by US universities, both in respect to overseas refugees and political figures and to former US government officials, some of whom return to university life. At what point do political activities and ambitions become incompatible with the scholarly detachment essential for a university?

The Kim case is not without precedent, although cases have been so rare at Harvard that even senior professors say they have difficulty remembering earlier examples. One was the pre-Hitler chancellor of Germany, Heinrich Bruning, who taught as a regular faculty member in Harvard's government department from 1938 to 1950.

Most recently, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., a major Filipino opposition figure long imprisoned by President Ferdinand Marcos, was a fellow at Harvard's Center for International Affairs from 1980 to 1982. This year he has a similar status at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scholars in the Cambridge area generally agree that Mr. Aquino has for the most part pragmatically conducted his political speeches and activities off campus. At Harvard he was known for his participation in seminars and courses, where he demonstrated a capacity to move from a purely political to an academic approach. At MIT he is conducting research for a book on the problem of the Muslim minority in the southern Philippines.

So enter Kim Dae Jung, longstanding opponent of the authoritarian military governments of assassinated President Park Chung Hee and his successor, Chun Doo Hwan. Some liberal Americans, including academics such as Jerome Cohen, formerly of Harvard Law School, have long viewed Kim as a human rights symbol.

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Ironically, the more conservative governments of Presidents Nixon and Reagan quietly intervened in 1973 and 1980 to save Kim's life. Part of their concern was that martyrdom of Kim would further strain US-South Korea relations.

Kim unsuccessfully challenged General Park in a 1971 presidential election.

In 1973, South Korean secret police abducted him from a hotel in Japan. Pressure from Japan and the US appear to have changed plans for assassinating the captive. In 1980 Kim was sentenced to death for sedition against the Chun government. Partly because of US prodding, Kim's sentence was commuted in January 1981, and late last year he was released after pressure from Japan and the US.

After many rumors of a post as a Harvard fellow, Kim visited Harvard March 10 to meet with faculty and administrators, as well as to deliver a speech on the campus. He told faculty members and students that he would like to be at Harvard if an explicit invitation is issued.

But according to a source close to the Kim family, there is considerable doubt among the Kims that Mr. Kim is really welcome at Harvard - even though university officials have said invitations issued to him in 1973 and 1978 still stand.

A spokesman for Harvard's Center for International Affairs cautiously declares: ''Mr. Kim is a candidate to be a fellow'' and his case ''is under consideration.''

But there is some concern the Kim visit and speech may have produced problems. ''There is now considerable concern Mr. Kim would use Harvard as a political base to influence American views on Korea,'' a Harvard professor says.

Before several hundred students, faculty members, and Boston-area Koreans, Kim strongly attacked the Chun government. He repeatedly cited Japanese and American failure to adequately back democratic forces as one of the reasons for Korean authoritarianism.

He also called on the audience to join in silent prayer for two Korean men sentenced to death for the March 1982 arson of an American cultural center in Pusan in which a Korean college student died.

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