The South Korean martial law authorities' decision to put Kim Dae Jung on trial on charges that could lead to the death sentence presents Washington and Tokyo with difficult moral and political decisions.
The United States is South Korea's shield against a renewed invasion by communist North Korea. Japan is South Korea's most important economic partner. In addition, any military threat to South Korea is ultimately a threat to Japan's security.
Both countries earnestly hope that South Korea will progress toward democratic government, as promised by President Choi Kyu-ha soon after his predecessor, President Part Chung Hee, was assassinated by one of his own henchmen last fall.
Yet South Korea today is under de facto military rule under a kind of military-civilian junta headed by Lt. Gen. Chon Doo Hwan, the tight-lipped military security commander who led a mini-coup against the country's military establishment last Dec. 12.
Politically, the announcement that Kim Dae Jung will be tried by a military court on charges of attempting to overthrow the government eliminates one of South Korea's most popular political leaders from running in presidential elections promised next year.
Morally, it raises anew the question of human rights that has persistently be deviled Seoul's relations both with the US and Japan since Mr. Kim was kidnapped in August 1973 and spirited back to Seoul. There he underwent intermittent periods of imprisonment and house arrest.
The Japanese government reached a political settlement of the Kim Dae Jung case with the South Korean authorities but has continued to be interested in his fate. Washington tried repeatedly, mostly behind the scenes, to obtain Mr. Kim's release.
Mr. Kim enjoyed a brief period of freedom between the assassination of President Park last October and the proclamation of full martial law May 17. Since then, neither family nor friends have been permitted to see him; all information about his case comes from the martial law authorities.
These authorities, and General Chon personally, have never hidden their deep dislike of Mr. Kim or their belief that he is either a communist or a pro-communist.
The 47-page document released by the martial law command July 4 accuses Mr. Kim of having masterminded the student demonstrations that led to the proclamation of martial law in May, and of having instigated the rebellion in Kwangju, which took place after Mr. Kim's arrest and the imposition of martial law.
The charges, if proved, could lead to the death penalty or to lifetime imprisonment.
The martial law authorities have already eliminated one strong contender for the presidency, by arresting him on charges of corruption and of illegally amassing a fortune. He is Kim Jong Pil, former prime minister and president of the Democratic Republican Party. Mr. Kim has been released after reportedly admitting the charges and resigning all political and public posts.
A third possible contender for the presidency, Kim Young Sam of the opposition New Democratic Party, is under house arrest.
President Choi says he will stick to his original time-table for democratic reform, according to which a new constitution will be submitted to a referendum in the fall and a new president will be elected by next summer.
Washington has instructed Ambassador William Gleysteen Jr. to "vigorously" inquire about the treatment of political prisoners.
"So far, however," said a letter from Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts (who had demanded a "clear public statement" on the Korea situation), "The Korean government has not allowed even persons in the prisoners' immediate family or their personal lawyers to visit those detained in mid-May, contrary to usual practice in the past."
Washington, however, has stopped short of economic sanctions or of threatening to reduce its military presence in South Korea. Tokyo also is maintaining normal economic ties.