When the world goes to the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, will it find more respect for human rights than is seen there now? Some hope is provided by the release from prison of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, currently visiting the United States. Another welcome step is the release of 1,200 lesser-known prisoners, including 48 political detainees, several of whom had been arrested with Mr. Kim in 1980. The question is whether the fundamental situation will change enough so that repression is replaced by democracy rather than turned on and off around the edges as various pressures sway the Seoul regime.
This time the United States is taking credit for quiet diplomacy beginning at the end of the Carter administration and continuing through such channels as Defense Secretary Weinberger's trip to South Korea earlier this year. Commuting Kim's death sentence set the stage for President Chun Doo Hwan's visit to President Reagan in 1981. His release now eases Secretary of State Shultz's visit to Seoul in February.
But US efforts on Mr. Kim's behalf go back earlier. It is said that, when South Korean authorities kidnapped him from Japan in 1973, the weights were already attached to his legs for dumping overboard when guess who came to the diplomatic rescue along with Japanese officals? Philip Habib, then the US ambassador to South Korea, the same Habib now seeking peace in the Middle East.
So Americans can feel some satisfaction in what their government has done for South Korea's democratic stirrings over the years. And many South Koreans appreciate this, even though Mr. Kim told a US interviewer that most of them now feel betrayed by the US government for failing to make clear that it is on the side of democracy.
One lingering sore point is the role of the Korean military in the brutal crackdown on the 1980 rebellion against martial law and in support of Mr. Kim. The 180 killings acknowledged by the government have been noted as several times those under Jaruzelski in Poland, and some believe the actual toll was more like 2,000.
One thing that clouds the issue is the military anomaly hanging on for three decades since the end of the Korean war. This makes the United Nations commander in South Korea always a United States general. Thus an American is tactically in command of South Korea military forces so large and dominant as to threaten infringements on democracy. The risk is of tainting the US in the Korean public's eyes for the excesses of the military as in 1980. As in various authoritarian lands, Washington becomes more identified with security than with democracy and rights.
Mr. Kim says the US's own forces are still necessary in his country for defense against communist North Korea. But he argues that the attainment of democracy is required to achieve peace across the border. Otherwise the North Koreans may not see the difference politically between their communist authoritarianism and the right-wing authoritarianism to the south - though they can hardly fail to see the economic progress of the south in contrast with their own. Some observers see Mr. Kim's own key importance as being a civilian figure, a Roman Catholic anticom-munist, with whom the North Koreans are willing to talk - someone who might help to bring about a kind of two-Germanys coexistence between the Koreas without the present military tensions.
Perhaps while Mr. Kim is in a form of exile in the US he can help Americans and their leaders understand more of the Korean point of view. The gains for individuals made by quiet diplomacy should continue. The effort at fundamental reform must go on, too.