The conditional release of 14 political prisoners by the South Korean government has not convinced dissident leaders that President Park Chung Hee intends to ease his rigid rule.
The prisoners were freed from one-to-three-year prison terms yesterday after signing written promises not to repeat the offenses for which they were jailed under an emergency decree that severely curbs any opposition to Park's government. Two other prisoners were removed from the parole list because they refused to sign similar pledges, according to reliable sources.
Reaction to the limited clemency among Park's diehard critics ranged from dissatisfaction to angy criticism. "We were very disappointed," said a leading Protestant minister. "We expected many more people and we think they should be set free without any conditions."
Several activists described the release as a political maneuver designed to make minimal concessions to blunt pressures from the United States and within South Korea for the restoration of human rights.
"Whatever he has done is intended only to preserve his own rule, said former President Yun Po Sun. "He doesn't want America to interfere here, so he releases a few prisoners. He isn't able to make major changes though, because without the emergency decree he will lose his power."
[In Washington, the State Department said it was gratified by the South Korean government's decision to release the 14 prisoners. Asked if that decision had resulted from Carter administration pressures, a State Department spokesman, John Trattner said, "Obviously this was a Korean government decision."]
At least 150 people are believed to be serving sentences under an all-encompassing emergency decree that Park proclaimed May 13, 1975, after the Communist takeover of Indochina, to end "divisive" politics and build national unity. Any criticism of Park's 1972 constitution or the emergency decree itself is illegal. Such crimes as political activities by students are punishable by a minimum one year in prison.
Almost two weeks ago, the National Assembly passed a resolution recommending eventual repeal of the emergency measure and leniency for jailed prisoners so that they might contribute in Seoul concur that the heavily pro-Park Assembly would not have acted without prior approval and possible instigation from the president.
On Sunday, the prosecutor-general, Oh Tak-Keun, announced that he was suspending the sentences of the 14 because they were repentant, good prisoners and serving relatively short terms. They included seven students and two of the 18 defendants convicted for issuing an appeal for the restoration of democracy. The best-known defendant in that case, former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, and other central figures in the incident are still in prison and a campaign for their unconditional release will continue, opposition sources declared today.
American-educated theologians Timothy and Steven Moon were among those who chose to stay in prison rather than sign a memorandum thanking the government for their release and promising not to break the law again. "Those who refused to sign the statement say they will never trust him (Park) whatever he says," said a prominent human rights campaigner. "There's deep distrust between the government and people."
According to Seoul newspapers, quoting a high government source, only prisoners showing "sincere repentance" will be eligible for parole. Freedom for the 14 will depend on continued good behavior. In earlier clemencies the government did not hesitate to rearrest political offenders like internationally-renowed poet Kim Chi Ha.
In a private briefing for senior South Korean news executives, Minister of Information Kim Seong Jin called the release "an indication of President Park's forebearance."
Anti-Park critics interpret it differently as a bid to satisfy mounting domestic and U.S. discontent over human rights in South Korea. They assert that concern over both the seemingly indefinite prolongation of the emergency decree and the worsening relations with the United States is spreading among well-educated South Koreans. These people worry that with the U.S. troop withdrawal ahead, South Korea cannot afford to lose the support and friendship of America.
Accentuating this point are North Korean President Kim II Sung's courtship of the United States and the Panmunjom, negotiations this weekend for return of the U.S. helicopter crew that Seoul officials watched with ill-disguised dismay. The bodies of three dead crewmen were flown from Seoul today, beginning the journey home.
"This government wanted trouble at Panmunjom," said a well-placed journalist. "We hoped for a week's talks and they never return the bodies. You have been our ally for many years and you're frequently promised you will not talk to North Korea without South Korea, but the political climate is changing very fast."
An opposition lawmaker confided "It seems we are drifting away from the United States while Kim is drifting closer."
The major question is what direct rule if any the United States has played in relaxation of control by Park. Many well-informed South Koreans believe there is American influence guiding Park, but with high secrecy to protect Park's 'face.' Assistant Secretary of State Philip Habib has paid two recent visits to South Korea and there are persistent stories he took the opportunity to tell Park and his ministers that an easing on human rights was necessary to get congressional support for the military up-grading of Seoul's armed forces. Am American embassy spokesman did not directly deny the stories.
President Park cannot possibly satisfy all of his critics. They are resolutely opposed to Park's constitution and his dictatorial rule. While in prison they are a nagging thorn in the Government's side. If released they will resume active opposition, perhaps eventually forcing the government to crack down with new arrests.