Cambridge, Mass. — Harvard University has agreed to sit for a special kind of examination, though it is not clear what constitutes a passing mark. The test begins when South Korea's most famous opposition politician, Kim Dae Jung, takes up a 10-month affiliation in September as a ''visiting fellow'' at the University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA).
A major question: Will Mr. Kim's outspoken opposition to military rule in South Korea place Harvard in the middle of an embarrassing cross fire between Mr. Kim and the South Korean government? South Korean government officials sometimes take brief study periods at Harvard. (Former prime minister Kim Jong-Pil, who has just been released from house arrest in Seoul for a visit to Columbia University, once studied here for a year.) Harvard's Korea Institute receives contributions from South Korean businessmen and sometimes from the South Korean government.
Both Mr. Kim and university officials have announced Mr. Kim's appointment to the research and study position which, according to a Harvard source, carries no salary. (Mr. Kim has adequate financial means, partly because of backing from successful Korean-Americans, a Harvard source notes.)
A long-imprisoned former presidential candidate, Mr. Kim is well-known for his opposition to the military rule of the late President Park Chung Hee and his successor Chun Doo Hwan. He has won the respect of some American liberal intellectuals for his persistent advocacy of democratic rule. But it was prodding from the conservative Reagan administration that encouraged commutation of his death sentence in January 1981. In December, 1982, Mr. Kim was released from prison and allowed to leave for the United States, after the South Korean government apparently concluded he would be less dangerous in exile than as an opposition rallying point at home in prison.
Politics is no stranger to Harvard, where a number of professors, such as economist John K. Galbraith and historian Edwin O. Reishauer, have worked for governments or formulated political positions. Numerous foreign officials and diplomats have attended Harvard classes, often in visiting fellow programs - such as that administered by the CFIA.
For now, any embarrassment for Harvard has been limited by CFIA's willingness to take a risk and by Mr. Kim's declared willingness to conduct himself in a way which will not burden the university. In a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor from his present residence in Arlington, Va., Mr. Kim said that he will continue at Harvard to promote human rights in South Korea. But he stressed he had no intention of using Harvard as a political base.
''I will never do that thing. I respect my people's dignity, so I do not want and I do not need that,'' Mr. Kim said. He added that he will follow serious scholarly pursuits at Harvard and suggested that making speeches in other American cities will be one way he may use to spread his message. Philippines opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who is now a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgoy after two years as a Harvard fellow, used a similar approach of channeling political activities off campus.
Mr. Kim said he will not try to contact South Korean students at Harvard unless ''they want to contact me for scholarly reasons.''
''My first concern is not to be famous or to be president. I am very much thankful that my life has been saved. My first concern now is how to live, happiness, and how I can help my people. I trust in their ability to get and maintain democracy.''
Mr. Kim, a Roman Catholic who sometimes includes calls for prayer in his speeches urging democracy in Korea, says he intends to write two books while at Harvard.
One will be a chronicle of his personal and political experiences since 1973, when South Korea's secret service kidnapped him from a hotel in Japan and returned him to South Korea. It has been widely reported that only at the last minute did US and Japanese pressure prevent Mr. Kim's abductors from assassinating him.
The second will be a book on prospects for reunification of North and South Korea and whether such a pact could be guaranteed by the US, Japan, China, and the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kim also said he recognized the complications his presence could cause Harvard. For this reason, he said he had avoided applying for a fellowship at Harvard's East Asian Institute or at its Korea Institute.
''The Korea Institute might have some Korean connection. If I had asked them, they might have found it difficult to accept me. I did not want to bother them. My interests also are broader than just Korea. That is why I think that for me the CFIA is better.''
Prof. Edward W. Wagner, director of Harvard's Korea Institute echoed this theme. If the institute had appointed Kim, he says, South Korean businessmen might have shown a lack of enthusiasm in donating money to the scholarly program.
''My feeling is that he is an active politician, not a scholar,'' he added. ''It takes courage for the CFIA to invite him here. It's good for Harvard's image to do things like that - it would not be Harvard if it were not done.''