Kim Dae Jung says he thinks the violence on his arrival at Seoul airport last Friday was deliberate. But, the Korean opposition leader says, ``I have no intention to make an issue out of it and put the Korean government in a difficult situation.'' The violence that greeted Mr. Kim on his return from two years of self-exile in the United States has blown into a major international incident. The US State Department filed a formal protest against the Korean government over the affair, in which Kim and his wife were shoved into an elevator -- some accounts said he was punched -- and a delegation of accompanying Americans, including two congressmen, was roughed up. The Korean government denies that any violence was used.
The US delegation is asking the Reagan administration to cancel the scheduled visit of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to the US in April.
Details of the events surrounding Kim's returnhave not appeared in the South Korean news media.
Kim arrived at the tail end of a remarkable campaign for National Assembly elections. The voting takes place tomorrow.
``I have never seen an election in Korea as wide open, where the controversy is so clear, the criticism so intense,'' says a diplomat.
Much of the excitement is caused by South Korea's newest opposition party -- the New Korea Democratic Party. In a speech last Wednesday before 100,000 people in Seoul, party president Lee Min-woo made an emotional plea for an end to military rule here. He spoke at an election rally with other candidates. Joint rallies have been staged across the nation.
But the campaign has also turned into a testament to Kim Dae Jung's enduring popularity. Opposition candidates throughout the country have pointedly identified themselves with the legacy of Kim.
Kim says says he finds the openness of the campaign ``very hopeful.'' He calls it a measure of the courage of Korea's opposition politicians and the intelligence of the nation's people.
It is still not clear how Kim will fit into all of this. The government still regards him officially as a criminal. It arrested him in May 1980 on charges of planning to overthrow the Korean government.
Some fear Kim may exert a ``polarizing'' influence on politics. Kim says he will be patient and moderate and hopes the government will respond in kind.
Millions of people have attended the campaign rallies here, which with rare exception have been orderly, if emotionally charged. Attacks on the government have been sharp and unrestrained. Many candidates have openly questioned the legitimacy of the government, which is by far the most sensitive issue in Korea.
``We know that no authority can be claimed by this regime,'' Mr. Lee said.
Candidates have also brought up the tragedy of the Kwangju uprising of 1980, in which at least several hundred died. Kwangju was Mr. Kim's home province.
``Streets are full of outcries of the people to lull the numerous souls who died for the cause of freedom during the Kwangju incident,'' Lee said.
One diplomat says the outpouring of free speech in the electoral campaign has a clear message: ``You don't have to scratch too deeply to find the people are getting tired of military rule.''
The government so far has shown unprecedented tolerance in allowing this criticism to take place. It has not cracked down on widespread technical violations of the election law.
In Kwangju a banner welcoming Kim Dae Jung home stayed up outside the office of New Korea Democratic Party candidate Kim No-Kyung despite objections from the election commission. All parties are engaging in illegal pamphleting.
A Korean professor who asked not to be named said all this free speech had ``broken a taboo.'' He expected people to continue speaking about controversial issues more openly after the election, even if they do not have the large audiences provided by the joint rallies. This kind of criticism rarely appears unedited in newspapers or on television.
For his part, Kim says he is ready to accept and work with the government of President Chun.
``If he is willing to develop democracy, to give the people a free choice in 1988, we will cooperate with him to realize the peaceful restoration of democracy,'' Kim says.
Kim is demanding free and fair elections (he says the current ones are ``window dressing''), freedom of speech and the press, and local political autonomy. He also says the government must apologize to Kwangju for the treatment it received in 1980.
Kim lives in a modest house several miles west of downtown Seoul. He had not been allowed to enter it since he was arrested in 1980. In a courtyard behind the front gate, a patch of grass has browned in the cold, and a cage that houses two peacocks is covered with plastic for the winter.
Now he is not allowed to leave. His attempt to leave Sunday to attend church services was blocked by police, who said they had orders not to allow him to leave the house.
Hundreds of police have thrown up a security blanket in the neighborhood. Foreign journalists are among the few people they will let in to see him.