Seoul — In South Korea, the press operates in an uneasy and ill-defined environment.
The outright censorship under martial law that ushered in the government of Chun Doo Hwan in 1980 is gone. It has given way to the principle of personal restraint exercised by reporters and editor. But, as one Korean put it, ''The principle is such that the Korean press is on a pendulum swinging between total freedom and total suppression.''
For example, the papers recently carried testimony by defendants charged with murder who claimed they had been tortured into making false confessions. But no mention was made of similar testimony of defendents in politically sensitive cases, such as the trial for the arson attack on the US Cultural Center in Pusan.
Caught in the middle of this uneasy state of affairs is the Dong-A Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper that during its 62-year history has consistently been the most outspoken critic of the government.
Earlier this summer, Kim Sang Man, honorary chairman and guiding voice of the Dong-A Ilbo, went to Europe to receive the Golden Pen of Freedom awarded to him seven years ago by the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers. It is commonly believed that Dr. Kim was finally allowed to collect the award because it had been bestowed during a different regime.
The award resulted from the paper's struggle to remain open in 1974, when the politically troubled administration of Park Chung Hee compelled advertisers to withdraw their advertising from the Dong-A Ilbo's publications and broadcasting company. But readers and supporters abroad mobilized, taking out private ads as a sign of solidarity during the seven-month period.
Under Chun, the press has a little more freedom, but the government can still play the role of unyielding editor.
Western observers, for example, were cheered by the open pretrial reporting of a recent $981 million loan scandal that involved a relative of the President. But as the trial drew near, the reportage began to change noticeably.
Recently, the city editors of three major newspapers were called in by officials of the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP), the successor of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, to ''discuss'' their coverage of the scandal.
A widely respected columnist of the Dong-A Ilbo, Kim Jung Bae, was held overnight by the ANSP for an editorial examining the erosion of confidence in the government. He was allowed to leave when he signed a retraction. On July 20, the publisher of the Dong-A Ilbo was summoned by the ANSP to answer for his paper's editorial content.
According to sources both in and out of news media circles, the questioning sessions are as widespread now as during the Park regime. Unlike the Park days, no journalists have been arrested. ''With the tight press controls,'' a Korean journalist said, ''journalists can't take pride in their profession because of the common perception that they are only the mouthpiece of the government.''