When South Korea's leading opposition figure boarded a plane for the United States in late 1982, he left a political opposition that was shattered and silenced. Some of Kim Dae Jung's political colleagues were in prison, or under house arrest, and most of the rest were legally barred from political activities.
When Mr. Kim returns to Korea Feb. 8, he will not find his former colleagues in jail. Nor are they silent. Nearly all of them have been given back their political rights, and some will be busy campaigning for National Assembly elections to be held Feb. 12.
Kim, of course, remains politically banned in South Korea. He has served only 21/2 years of a 20-year sentence for sedition. His sentence was interrupted when he was allowed to go to the US -- under pressure from the Reagan administration -- ostensibly for medical treatment.
Recently Choi Chang Yoon, a presidential aide, said that Kim will be put in jail when he arrives in Seoul, and that house arrest is no longer being considered. Even house arrest, one Western diplomat says, would irritate military authorities, who see Kim as a convicted criminal.
However, the South Korean Embassy in Washington appeared to back off from that stance. It issued a statement last week saying Mr. Choi's remarks were ``strictly his personal views.''
Kim's colleague and one-time intense political rival, Kim Young Sam, is also on the political blacklist. Even under the ban, the two Kims are Korea's most influential opposition figures. They and Kim Jong Pil, the late President Park Chung Hee's former prime minister, make up ``the three Kims.'' All three would pose the greatest challenge to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, if they could.
But even without the three Kims' open leadership, Korea's opposition forces have reached a critical mass.
On Nov. 30, the government restored political rights to 84 politicians, lawyers, and educators, leaving 15 on the blacklist. The freed politicians were able to coax 10 National Assemblymen to defect from the Democratic Korea Party (DKP), which is often accused of being a government-sponsored and manipulated opposition. Together they successfully founded a new opposition party, the New Korea Democratic Party.
This snowballing of activities is setting the stage for a fundamental change in Korea's domestic political scene.
``The ability of the government to manipulate the political opposition is falling apart,'' says a diplomat who closely follows Korean politics.
No one expects an upset defeat for the ruling Democratic Justice Party in the elections. Korea's electoral laws give a hefty advantage to the political party receiving the highest vote count.
Many people say that Kim Dae Jung's appeal has waned in his absence. ``He's not going to sweep the nation off its feet when he gets here,'' says a diplomat.
But even if his influence has crested, no opposition figure has yet risen to take his place. And perhaps more important than anything, Kim is a powerful symbol of opposition to the government.
``Mr. Kim's very presence in the country will give the opposition strength and confidence,'' says an assemblyman in the opposition camp.
Kim's return could also set off unpredictable events in Korea, where he is often compared to the late Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. of the Philippines. Mr. Aquino, like Kim, was a political exile who decided to return home. His assassination at Manila airport in 1983 set off a wave of political unrest that threatened to topple the Philippine government.
Government officials in Seoul scoff at the analogy to Aquino and say they find it insulting. In fact, some are keen to get Kim's return behind them.
But even if Kim's return takes place without incident, and the ruling party wins the election, the government may be in for rough sledding ahead. ``If the ruling party's vote count slips below the last election's [35.6 percent], the opposition will become more vocal and demand more influence,'' says a political analyst.
Critics have repeatedly charged that the major opposition parties currently in the assembly -- the Democratic Korea Party and the Korean National Party -- are not ``genuine'' opposition parties. Even party members informally admit their parties are inventions of the government designed to create a faade of democracy.
Opposition party leaders keep a tight rein on party members to prevent criticism of the government from getting out of hand. ``We are dictatorial inside the party and meek toward the outside,'' says a DKP assemblyman.
That strict discipline helped spur defections from the party in December. DKP members wanted to raise a more vocal criticism of the government last fall, when thousands of police were sent to Seoul National University in an attempt to quell a politically motivated boycott of examinations. Party leaders, however, would not allow it.
Government officials deny the opposition is manipulated or docile. They say that opposition pressure on budget bills, local autonomy legislation, and election laws has resulted in significant compromises from the ruling party.
Opposition assemblymen also claim that given the reality of military power in Korea, the National Assembly does give them a valuable platform to speak out against government policy, even if they cannot question the premises of the political system or criticize the President. And many say they can achieve more by working with the government than by trying to butt heads against it.
The government also looks proudly on recent cooperation and compromise with the opposition parties as a sign of Korea's ``political development,'' and a major achievement of the Chun presidency.
Yet that cooperation disturbs government opponents because many do not accept the legitmacy of Chun's presidency. General Chun followed a military route to power, although he later shed his uniform and ran for president as a civilian. But with 835 politicians banned from participation, it was not much of a contest. Critics also charge that the system of indirect election through presidential electors can too easily be manipulated by the government.
The government has its answer to this too. ``More important than any other point is whether we experience the first peaceful transfer of power in modern Korean history,'' says Choi, a presidential political aide. Chun has repeatedly promised to step aside in 1988 when his term of office expires, and says peaceful transition is more important than opening wide the flood gates of democracy.
Kim Dae Jung claims he would like the opposition, united under the three Kims, to meet with the government and work out a blueprint for peaceful transfer to democracy. After the military leaders step down, Kim says he would not seek ``revenge.'' But observers here say such a meeting is extremely unlikely. For Chun to meet with Kim would be tantamount to admitting that his government lacked legitimacy, and would create a crisis in itself.
Because of the way Chun came to power, many Koreans will not accept him, no matter what he does. Many also say they dislike his autocratic public image.
Yet a broad range of Koreans have accepted the reality of military influence of politics and have learned to live with it. Some see it as a way to ensure stability in the face of a constant threat from North Korea.
Nam Jae Hie, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, admits that his party is a kind of civilian-military coalition, with the military being the senior partner. ``Why shouldn't civilians and the military work together?'' he asks. ``If we enjoyed Japanese or American degree of democracy, the country would explode.''
And pursuing a tough economic policy, the government has engineered a stunning economic recovery from the deep depression of 1979 and 1980. Since 1980, gross national product has grown an average of 7.2 percent a year. Even one opposition politician admitted, ``The President is not popular, but more people have come to like him.''
The government may find it tempting to strike back more openly if the challenge to its authority grows too bold. Yet it knows it would pay a heavy price for doing so. Such a move would call into question its entire program of gradual political liberalization and could create a crisis of confidence at home. Abroad, it would severely mar the image of a stable, legal democracy that the government has tried so hard to project.