Mrs. Kim struggles for her dissident husband's release

On the wall of Kim Dae Jung's living room in a quiet residential section of Seoul there hangs, in Korean translation, the following Bible quotation, from Romans 5:3-5.

''We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.''

''I put those verses up,'' said Mrs. Kim Dae Jung, ''after my husband was arrested, to remind me to have patience and hope.''

During the few months Mr. Kim was politically free, between the assassination of President Park Chung Hee (Oct. 26, 1979) and the imposition of nationwide martial law (May 17, 1980), this small living room was full of politicians, journalists, and others waiting to see South Korea's leading opposition figure.

On the snowy morning this correspondent visited Mrs. Kim, only the coffee boiling on the yontan (coal briquette) stove by the window kept me company until Mrs. Kim entered for a brief conversation about her husband and how he is faring in prison.

Mr. Kim, along with the poet Kim Chi Ha, has recently received a prize from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation for human rights in Vienna. ''He embodies hope for the endurance of human rights, justice, and democracy in Korea,'' the citation read.

The government of President Chun Doo Hwan, which sentenced Mr. Kim to death in September 1980 on charges of antistate activities and of plotting rebellion, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment early this year, just before President Chun's state visit to Washington for talks with President Reagan.

There have occasionally been rumors since then that Mr. Kim would be amnestied and allowed to leave the country, like other opposition figures. But nothing has come of them.

''The last time I saw him, on Dec. 4, he said he did not think he would be freed this year,'' said Mrs. Kim.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Kim has been active trying to keep up morale among the families of other political prisoners, including students, seeking to get their prison conditions improved, and ultimately to win their release.

''During Human Rights Week recently,'' she said, ''there were posters all over the city, 'A righteous society is built where human rights are respected.' ''

On one of her recent visits to the prison in Chongju, southeast of Seoul, where her husband is held, she told the prison director that she thought these were excellent posters ''and I hoped that he would really respect human rights, not only for prisoners who were well-known but for those who were unknown and poor. He made no reply.''

Mrs. Kim also attends periodic prayer meetings, sometimes in a church, sometimes in other places, in which families of political prisoners ask for divine intercession on behalf of their loved ones. From time to time, obstacles have been placed in her way. Last week, forbidden to hold a prayer meeting in a church, she had one in her home.

''Immediately the police came and wanted to know who had attended and what was their purpose. I refused to tell them anything.''

She has to play hide-and-seek with the police on occasion, getting up and leaving her house as early as 4 a.m., before surveillance has begun.

''I''m not doing anything illegal and I don't see why I should not be able to come and go freely,'' she says. But the police frequently come to her and ask her not to go out or to receive visitors on certain days.

Mrs. Kim visits Chongju at least once a week to deliver books and other supplies to her husband. She is allowed to see him, however, only once or twice a month. Until October, she said, she was allowed only one 10-minute meeting per month. In November, she had two 20-minute meetings, and this month she hopes for two again, because of Christmas, although she has been told officially that she can have only one.

''I'm taking my youngest son, a high school pupil, to see his father this time,'' she said. ''After all, he has not seen him since the summer holidays.''

Although some political prisoners see their families in a room without barriers, she sees her husband only across a glass wall.

Mr. Kim, she said, is in solitary confinement in ward eight of the prison, all other cells in the ward having been emptied of inmates. He spends his entire time in his cell, except for 30 minutes each afternoon when he is allowed to exercise.

The cell, Mrs. Kim said, is inadequately heated. She has been allowed to send in a small electric heater, but her husband still complains of the cold.

He is allowed to read, but not to write except for one letter per month to his family, on a single air-letter-size piece of paper. With each letter he asks for a fresh supply of books. One recent request for 12 books included John Dewey; Sun-tzu, the ancient Chinese military tactician; and ''A Theology of Liberation'' by the Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez.

''I'm not sure he is allowed all to receive all the books I send,'' said Mrs. Kim. ''The next time I see him, I shall have to ask whether he got the Gutierrez book.''

Outside in the courtyard, a caged Alsatian given Mr. Kim by an admirer a couple of years ago barked furiously, signifying another guest at the door. I thanked Mrs. Kim and slipped out from the deserted street beyond her door into the hubbub and honking horns of mainstream Seoul.

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