Seoul — Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's leading dissident, is under house arrest again. His confinement is part of a sweeping government crackdown against the opposition. The government of President Chun Doo Hwan is trying to snuff out a signature campaign to revise the Constitution before the effort can get off the ground.
Already this year, about 450 students have been arrested, 200 in connection with the signature campaign. The total is more than twice the number of arrests made in the first eight months of last year.
On Monday, police took into custody nearly 100 dissidents and opposition party members, according to a spokesman of the opposition New Korea Democratic Party, and 71 were still being held by police yesterday.
This latest crackdown and the opposition's vow to continue the signature campaign have pushed political tensions in South Korea to a new height.
The confrontation began last week, when Kim Dae Jung -- along with opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Lee Min Woo, president of the opposition party -- became the first to put their names on a petition calling for a constitutional amendment allowing for direct election of the president. The call has been a centerpiece of opposition demands for democratic reform here. They claim that the current system of indirect voting for the presidency through a 5,000-man electoral college will virtually allow President Chun to name his successor.
Mr. Chun's term of office expires in 1988, and he has vowed to step down in order to pave the way for South Korea's first peaceful, constitutional transfer of presidential power. But the opposition is determined to change the Constitution before another president is installed. Even many government officials admit that most South Koreans would favor a direct election system if given the choice.
The signing of the petitions on Feb. 12 caught the government by surprise, and police responded with great fury.
About 1,000 police surrounded the house of Kim Dae Jung last week, and he has not been allowed out since. His phone lines have been cut, and for the first time since he returned from exile in the United States one year ago, foreign journalists have not been allowed in to meet him.
House arrest against Kim Young Sam was imposed for about 10 hours Monday, to prevent him from joining other dissidents in trying to enter the offices of the Council for the Promotion of Democracy.
The council is headed jointly by the two Kims. Last Thursday, police staged a raid on the council offices in an apparently unsuccessful search for the signed petitions. In the process, seven Korean journalists were beaten up. Police then sealed off the offices behind a cordon of riot police and buses.
Yesterday, opposition party leader Lee led a group of dissidents in trying to reenter the building. In a scuffle, Mr. Lee was forced into a car and driven home. Twelve opposition assemblymen were forced into buses and taken away from the site before being released. It is unclear if these people will be subject to formal arrest procedures or indictments.
Minister of Justice Kim Sung Ky has warned that stiff legal action would be taken against all involved in the signature campaign, which he called ``a concealed violence and an act against the parliamentary democratic system.''
President Chun last month called for a moratorium on political debate until after the 1988 Seoul Olympic games. The opposition vigorously rejected the call, and there are now fears that this latest clash could lead to wider political violence.