Seoul — Kim Dae Jung says he does not intend to run for president of South Korea. But if his arm were twisted? Mr. Kim, co-leader of South Korea's opposition, refuses to give a clear ``yes'' or ``no'' to a small group of journalists gathered in his modest living room. ``The party convention will decide,'' he replies.
In the short term, it is answers such as these that make controversy swirl around South Korea's most famous politician.
But to get bogged down in the whys and wherefores of immediate responses is to miss the real meaning of this charismatic politician's long struggle for freedom and democracy.
The essential demand, Kim says, ``is the same as that of America's Founding Fathers: Give me liberty, or give me death.''
If voiced by any other politician, the words might seem trite. But somehow, in this man's mouth, they resonate.
Here is an individual who for nearly two decades has withstood the crushing weight of authoritarian governments with little more than his bare hands. Kim has survived a kidnapping widely believed to have been organized by government agents, a death sentence, and repeated prison terms.
``We want the right to decide the affairs of society by our own will. We want freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly'' - the words come tumbling out. ``Here in Korea we have no free speech, no independent assembly [parliament], no independent courts. We want a genuine democratic society, like what Western countries have. We want security, to meet the North Korean threat. But security implies there is something to be secured. That something is democratic freedom.''
Kim says that in his view, the proposals by ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo for direct presidential elections, for freeing of political prisoners, and for removing controls on speech, press, and assembly, and President Chun Doo Hwan's acquiescence therein, were a direct result of the Korean people's struggle for freedom. ``It is a victory for our people,'' he says, noting that the struggle was for the most part nonviolent.
It is possible Kim Dae Jung may never become president of South Korea.
His name remains an anathema to the military elite that surrounds President Chun and that still plays a decisive role in the nation's power game. Kim has already said he is not running for president, thus leaving the field to Kim Young Sam, the co-leader of the opposition. That was last November, however, and Roh Tae Woo's surprise announcement June 29 has turned many hitherto accepted givens into imponderables.
While supporters of the two Kims maneuver to get the party nomination for their man, both Kims know that to revive their erstwhile open rivalry will only ensure victory for the ruling party candidate, Mr. Roh.
``There will be only one candidate for the opposition party,'' Kim Dae Jung says firmly.
Since his house arrest was lifted June 26, Kim's residence atop a Seoul hillside has been a hive of activity. His living room overflows with party followers and newsmen, and cars are parked all along the narrow street in front.
But he can never be sure how long his freedom will last, or how genuine are Roh's promises of democratic reforms.
``I think he [Roh] has started to impress our people with his promises of democratization in this country,'' Kim says. ``But he has been a military government leader for so long.
``We are carefully watching what he will say and do.''
The government has promised to restore Kim his civil rights, which would allow him to run for any electoral office, including the presidency.
How did this restlessly energetic man pass the 2 months of his most recent house arrest?
``I read,'' he says. ``I tended my flowers. I had a second honeymoon with my wife.''
``You know,'' he continues, ``after your first honeymoon, the children come, and so forth.
``Before you know it, they grow up, and leave, and you are alone with your wife once more.
``But I was so busy with my political activities that I had hardly any time left to spend with my wife.
``I have to thank President Chun for giving me this opportunity.''