South Korea: a step for rights

The symbolism is vivid. Will the substance develop, too? Thus does a mixture of hope and caution greet the restoration of civil rights to Kim Dae Jung. He represents to the world an undying South Korean resistance to governmental repression. By allowing him and others at long last to vote, run for office, and exercise other civil rights, the present government has taken what Mr. Kim reasonably calls a "belated but fortunate step."

But Mr. Kim recognizes how far the country still has to go to restore the democratic progress lost under the regime of Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated four months ago. The succeeding government, with military men rushing into a power vacuum, has had a transitional task whose difficulty should not be minimized. Yet it could be moving faster to revise the authoritarian constitution bequeathed by President Park. As it is, a new president cannot be directly elected by the people until next year.

Presumably Mr. Kim will be a candidate for nomination by the opposition New Democratic Party, which has been looking toward other leadership during his recent years of detention and deprivation of rights. But he says the first priority must be reinforcement of democracy.

The matter is urgent not only for the fundamental good of the South Korean people but for achieving the political stability to armor their nation against any political or military intrusion by communist North Korea. The later, indeed , may be seeking to influence the development of political events south of the border by its recent initiative toward eventual prime ministerial talks between the two countries.

Such talks, under mutually agreeable ground rules, could be the more useful if South Korea speaks from the strength of practicing the democracy it preaches. After all, just about the only word on rights in North Korea was last year's Amnesty International report on a Venezuelan poet's account of beatings, starvation, and other brutal treatment while he was in prison there for six years.

South Korea now has something new to show in contrast with communist oppression. After the elimination of Park, it began releasing imprisoned dissidents. Now President Choi Kyu Hah has restored civil rights not only to Mr. Kim but to almost 700 other protesters, including politicians, clergymen, professors, and students. He acted, he said, so that they can "participate in the cause of the nation's development." The credit he deserves will be all the greater if it is seen that free political participation is not hampered in any way again as South Korea goes forward.

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