Far more urgent now than the question of how Kim Dae Jung was treated at Seoul airport when he returned from the United States the other day is the question of how he will be treated by South Korean authorities in the weeks and months to come.
Exactly what happened when Kim arrived at the airport is unclear. A number of American supporters who accompanied Korea's principal opposition figure charge that Kim was beaten and that they were roughed up by security forces. Kim's wife says that there was no beating; Kim himself says that he is uncertain about what happened. The fact that no one disputes is that Kim was immediately seized, spirited away and placed under apparent house arrest. The intent, at the airport and proably for some time to come, is to keep this outspoken critic of President Chun Doo Hwan's regime as isolated as possible.
The United States thought that it had an understanding with the Korean government that Kim would not be harmed or sent back to prison to serve out a long sentence after an extremely dubious conviction for sedition. In return, Chun would be welcomed by President Reagan on his planned visit to Washington in April. The incident at the airport could have been either deliberately nasty or simply a case of overzealous police heavy-handedness. In either event the United States feels that the understanding was violated, and has officially protested. None of this will add warmth to the Chun visit, if that visit indeed takes place.
The United States once again finds itself trying to walk a fine line in South Korea between non-interference in its internal affairs and active encouragement of greater political rights. Washington cannot dictate Seoul's domestic policies. But it can and should make clear its unflagging interest in wanting a freer and more representative political system, and its insistence that political opponents of the regime must not be harmed.