Kim Dae Jung's unresolved fate has brought South Korean relations with the United States to their lowest point since the Korean war 30 years ago. President Carter is understood to have sent President Chun Doo Hwan a blunt letter on the subject, reinforced by a paragraph saying that he had discussed the matter with President-elect Ronald Reagan and had his full agreement.
Mr. Kim, South Korea's most prominent opposition politician, is under sentence of death on charges of sedition and of fomenting an armed rebellion against the government. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on his appeal against this sentence shortly. If it confirms the verdict, only President Chun can commute it.
US Defense Secretary Harold Brown, following up the Carter letter, made a one-day stopover in Seoul Dec. 13 en route home from a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels and defense talks in Tokyo.
Dr. Brown is understood to have raised the Kim Dae Jung issue with President Chun on President Carter's instructions. He made no threats and no promises, but pointed out that in terms of US public opinion and of congressional opinion, Mr. Kim's fate would be very significant in US relations with South Korea. He did not say what the consequences of executing Mr. Kim would be, but only that public opinion in the United States would be "exercised."
In response, Korean diplomatic sources indicated that President Chun said Mr. Kim was being tried in accordance with domestic law and that his case would be dealt with in a fair manner.
The issue therefore remains unresolved, with President Chun and his advisers apparently still debating whether to go ahead with the execution. But diplomatic observers, who early in December feared that there were eight chances in ten the execution would be carried out, now believe there is at least an even chance that Mr. Kim's life will be spared.
Letters from prominent US leaders, who in the past have strongly supported the US security commitment to South Korea and who have consistently opposed President Carter's now-abandoned policy of troop withdrawals from the peninsula, are understood to have been a factor in the changing perceptions of President Chun and his core group of Army generals and colonels.
Among these Americans are Sen. Charles Percy, soon to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. John Glenn and Sam Nunn, and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Clement Zablocki.
At the same time, the prickly current state of US-South Korean relations is illustrated by the contretemps preceding Dr. Brown's visit. After first accepting the visit, President Chun's staff is reported to have tried to block the meeting by sending the President off on an inspection trip to Pohang on the day of the defense secretary's arrival. Strong pleas from the US side got the meeting restored.
Dr. Brown was originally scheduled to arrive in Seoul at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13. But because this was a Saturday, and President Chun normally takes Saturday afternoons off, the arrival time was changed to 11 a.m. Mr. brown's plane was 20 minutes late, but he did manage to make it to the Blue House, President Chun's official residence, by 11:45 and enjoyed a 95-minute conversation with the President and his top security and foreign affairs advisers.
Dr. Brown also discussed security issues including the North Korean threat, both with President Chun, and with Defense Minister Choo Young Bock (in a separate two-hour meeting).