The reconfinement of South Korea's leading dissident, Kim Dae Jung, is the latest in a series of tough measures taken by the government against its opponents. Yesterday, the crackdown on opposition reached the ranks of the governing party itself. President Chun Doo Hwan ousted two key moderates within the party leadership, apparently for their failure to support a new law that will give his government sweeping authority to intervene on university campuses to counter student activism.
Mr. Kim's house arrest Wednesday caps months of government anger over his involvement in the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), the opposition party that performed strongly in February's National Assembly elections. Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, another prominent opposition leader, control the largest factions within the party, although neither of the ``two Kims'' has formally joined the party.
``They told me, `You have violated the party law and cannot but be put under house arrest,' '' Kim Dae Jung said in an interview.
Although the government lifted an earlier political ban and a house arrest order against Kim on March 6, the terms of a suspended sentence for sedition still prevent him from taking part in the activities of political parties.
All day, chauffered black sedans come and go bearing members of Kim's faction in the NKDP. An office filled with gifts of ceramic pots, decorative stones, and paintings gives him all the trappings of a political boss.
Wednesday's detention order prevented Kim from going to the national convention of the NKDP, but it had little practical effect. Hundreds of delegates from the provinces visited Kim at home, and a tape recording delivered the speech that police would not let him give in person.
Some of Kim's aides chuckled at what they regarded as government folly. The house arrest order would only draw his supporters together and draw publicity to his cause, they said.
The government's inability to clip Kim's wings is just one source of frustration that has led to an abrupt hardening of attitudes toward the opposition over the past several weeks. The broad crackdown has included arrests of student and labor activists, and the arrest of artists and confiscation of their works.
The president of Seoul National University, South Korea's most prestigious university, was sacked last week for refusing to expel student activists. The justice minister recently resigned under pressure to take responsibility for courtroom disturbances in the trial of students who participated in a sit-in last May at the American cultural center in Seoul.
The new legislation on campus stability is a tacit admission by the government that its harder line will provoke more antigovernment outbursts, and also an admission that its policies of gradual liberalization have failed.
``The government is not confident enough to deal with the political situation with democratic means because they are not supported by our people,'' says Kim Dae Jung.
An opposition assemblyman puts it more bluntly: ``This is a very weak regime. The weaker they become, the more possibility there is that they will resort to harsher means.''
Many delegates at the NKDP's national convention yesterday expressed pessimism about the possibility of reaching any accommodation with the government, and they are predicting more confrontation.
``The government's attitude is forcing the students and laborers to be radical,'' says Kim Dae Jung. ``They have no way to appeal their problems peacefully and legally.'' Mr. Kim's viewpoint is now shared by a wide range of moderate intellectuals and diplomatic observers who do not wish to be named.
In June, the two Kims issued a statement warning that unless the government made democratic reforms, social instability would grow sharply over the coming year. Both men stressed that they did not support violence.
A senior political adviser to the President recently expressed confidence that the government would be able to deal with its opponents by using police to enforce legal measures, and that martial law would not be necessary. South Korea's growing middle class provides a bulwark for stability, he said, and the government is right to crack down on lawlessness.
The realization that the government now intends to deal with its opponents by cracking the whip disturbs many people. ``Even if they can prevent social unrest from getting out of hand, it is too costly,'' says an opposition assemblyman. ``If there is a fair election, we will win and there will be no more trouble, demonstrations, or disorder. The problem is this illegitimate government.''
Opposition members believe firmly that the majority of South Korean people support them, and they are growing impatient. Assemblymen from the NKDP, which merged with a smaller opposition party in the spring, received nearly 50 percent of the vote in the last election, compared to 35 percent for the government party. The government still controls a majority in the assembly because of a system of bonus seats.
At yesterday's NKDP convention, the delegates reelected the candidate supported by the two Kims, Lee Min Woo, as party president. The convention also reaffirmed the party's principal goal: to revise the Constitution and revamp the election system, particularly to allow for direct election of the president.
But optimism was not in evidence at the convention.
``They [the government] only want to retain power under any circumstances,'' says one delegate. ``Under any circumstances they would not allow the first opposition party to become the ruling party. But even if it is futile, we must continue to try.''