South Korea announced yesterday that it will not jail opposition leader Kim Dae Jung when he returns Friday from two years of political exile in the United States. The announcement came just a few days after President Reagan issued a formal invitation to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to visit the US in April.
But doubts remain whether Mr. Kim will be put under house arrest, which would prevent him from campaigning in the Feb. 12 elections.
Diplomats in Seoul say it is unlikely that any explicit deal was made between the US and Korea, trading Kim's freedom for Mr. Chun's invitation to visit the US. But according to one diplomat, ``Mr. Chun knows that if there are severe political difficulties in Korea at the time of the visit, it could spoil the atmosphere for the trip and make things difficult for him personally. The Americans have surely pointed this out to the Koreans.''
``I recognize this government's disclosure as the beginning of a reasonable attitude,'' Kim told Reuters in a telephone interview from his home near Washington.
But, he added, ``There is no mention in the government's statement as to whether I can avoid house arrest or surveillance, which would deprive me of freedom.''
Talks for the Chun visit had been under way for some time, but many observers expected an announcement would come only after the US had time to assess the impact of Kim's return and the results of the elections.
If political unrest in Korea grows, or if the government clamps down sharply on the opposition, the Chun visit could cause great embarrassment to the White House.
A diplomat said the Korean government would now handle Kim's return with a minimum of ``dislocation.'' He predicted the government would move to restrict Kim's activities without formally arresting him or detaining him.
In January, police surrounded the house of Kim Young Sam, another very prominent dissident, six times to prevent him from attending political meetings. Otherwise, Kim Young Sam has been free to move about, although always with police following. Kim Dae Jung may face similar treatment.
While Kim Dae Jung's return has received great international attention, Korea's news media have been silent about the subject. Most Koreans are unaware of his plans.
Kim's supporters, however, have organized a welcoming committee chaired by Kim Young Sam. He and hundreds of other people are expected to try to greet Kim Dae Jung at the airport when he arrives, though many expect the Korean police will block access to the airport.
US Congressmen Edward Feighan, Thomas Foglietta, and Edward Markey plan to accompany Kim on his flight back to Korea as a gesture of support. Also expected on the plane are Pat Derian, former assistant secretary of state for human rights, Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador, and singer Mary Travis.
American Embassy officials have expressed some concern that the Korean government may deny entry to these American citizens, especially the congressmen.
The American government's decision to issue the invitation to President Chun before Kim's return and the elections is fully consistent with its controversial policy of showing strong public support for the Korean government.
American officials have said, both publicly and privately, that political liberalization in Korea is not helped by creating public embarrassment for the government. They believe that a more confident Korean government, not worried about a withdrawal of American support, is less likely to fear the political opposition and less likely to adopt repressive policies.
Opposition politicians in Korea have strongly denounced this American policy. They deny that any significant liberalization has taken place in Korea.
``America must not encourage and inspire this dictatorial regime by repeatedly going overboard in its support,'' says Kim Young Sam.