Tokyo — The imposition of the death sentence on leading South Korean political dissident Kim Dae Jung puts the country's new hard-line leaders on a possible collision course with Japan and the United States.
A military tribunal found the former presidential candidates guilty of communist sympathies and antistate activity Sept. 17.
The sentence is being appealed, and it still is possible President Chun Doo Hwan may commute it to life imprisonment.
Even so, the majority verdict in Japan is that the former Army general who vaulted to power last month has decided to take a hard line with any form of opposition to his government and call the bluff of his foreign critics.
The United States and Japan are among the countries that expressed serious concern at the outcome of the Kim trial, regarding it as a major test of the new regime's intentions.
The South Korean government called the trial a criminal proceeding. (The all- military judges conducted the hearings as a court martial.)
But Western observers saw it as a political maneuver to remove the charismatic Kim and his supporters from any role in politics (he came close to unseating the late President Park Chung Hee in the last direct election in 1971) , and an indication of President Chun's determination not to tolerate any opposition to his rule.
The prosecutors originally tried to characterize Kim as financier and fomenter of the demonstrations that erupted in Seoul and the provincial capital of Kwangju (the politician's home area) las May, when 189 people were killed.
But that became difficult to prove in view of the fact Kim was arrested a day before the Kwangju uprising began.
Eventually, the prosecutors began focusing on Kim's much earlier association with Korean antigovernment groups in Japan, membership in which the Supreme Court decided in 1978 merited either life imprisonment or the death sentence.
That is particularly galling to the Japanese government, which thought it had a solid agreement with the Seoul authorities that Kim would not be prosecuted for any of his activities here.
While President Park cracked down on opposition political parties after his narrow 1971 election victory, Kim Dae Jung fled into exile, mainly living in the United States.
But in August 1973, while visiting Japan, he was kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel and smuggled bound and blindfolded back to Korea on a small boat. Kim has described how weights were tied to his body and he was convinced he was to be thrown overboard. Instead, he was released near his home.
Evidence pointed to the kidnapping having been carried out by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and a senior diplomat at the Korean Embassy in Tokyo was implicated.
Seoul-Tokyo relations became extremely frosty, until eventually a "political solution" was agreed to between the two governments, in which the South Koreans promised that Kim would never be prosecuted for any antigovernment actions on Japanese soil.
Japanese government spokesmen have repeatedly mentioned that agreement during the politician's trial, pointing out that if the new administration in Seoul chose to ignore it the present good relations between the two countries would be seriously threatened.
But many of the statements issued in Tokyo after the sentence was announced bitterly attacked the Japanese government for its collusion in the "political settlement."
By agreeing not to pursue its investigations of the kidnapping, the government had, in effect, betrayed Kim and allowed South Korean authorities to deal with him as they wished.
Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki reacted immediately, saying his government was worried and concerned and would make this concern known to the seoul regime in a day or so.
Attacking the sentence as "harsh," the Foreign Ministry said in a formal statement, "The governmnet is deeply worried about developments in the [Kim] situation."
Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito told reporters Japan had never anticipated a death sentence in the case.
Opposition parties and antigovernment Korean groups here, however, called that attitude "naive," saying it had been obvious all along the court martial proceedings were merely "theater" with the physical elimination of Kim a foregone conclusion.
What most worries the Japanese, however, is how the Kim case will affect the delicate Korean domestic situation.
The basic causes that led to the Kwangju uprising -- suppressed by the Army in the worst fighting since the Korean War -- remain, and are now exacerbated by the emergence of Kim as a potential martyr.
Any internal divisions that weaken South Kora's will have to withstand a military attack from the communist North are regarded with deep concern in political and military circles here.
The hope is apparently that the whole trial is merely a "flexing of the muscles" by General Chun, which will now allow the President to show his magnanimity against his opponents.
But it's not a hope anyone seems to be clinging to with much conviction.