Despite weeks of sporadic negotiations, there seems to be little prospect of a Christmastime release of South Korea's political prisoners.

Talks between dissident leaders and the government have been suspended and neither side appears to believe that differences will be resolved in time for a holiday release.

The principal barrier remained the government's unwillingness to free prisoners unless they sign a statement of repentance for violating South Korean laws prohibiting demonstrations and dissent.

Most of the prisoners claim the proclamations they are accused of violating are illegal and have refused to sign. Among them is Kim Dae Jung, the former presidential candidate and leader of the principal opposition to President Park Chung Hee.

Kim is described by friends as in poor health and suffering severely from sciatica, but he is said to be adamant in refusing to come out of prison on the government's terms.

More than 200 dissenters are being held in prison, some for violating the country's anti-Communist law but most for violating proclamations that make it ellegal to criticize the government.

The government says it has offered conditional release to all prisoners except those accused of violating the anti-Communist law. Dissident leaders, however, say the Korean Central Intelligence Agency has offered during the negotiations to release only about 40 persons.

The opposition leaders, representing students and Christian dissidents, believe the government made its limited offer in order to satisfy the United States' insistence on a moderation of repression that has characterized the last few years of Park's rule.

Some believe the government has begun to treat prisoners less harshly than before. Fewer stories of torture and abuse are relayed to relatives outside.

The Rev. Kim Kwan Suk, secretary general of the Korean National Council of Churches, said in an interview this week that prisoners affiliated with religious organizations seem to escape torture now, but those lacking such affiliations are frequently abused.

The U.S. embassy here frequently interviews dissident leaders and collects information on how prisoners are treated. American officials refuse to say whether they attempt to pressure the government to relax its policies. Kim said he is contacted frequently by embassy officials and he passes on to them messages or appeals from prisoners' families.

"But I do not know if they give any pressure (to the South Korean government) or not," he said.

Outside the prisons, anti-government protests are still routinely crushed. Police and KCIA agents forcibly dispersed a small group attempting a protest march after holding a prayer meeting in a Presbyterian church to celebrate human rights week. Another march attempted by about 20 members of the small opposition Democratic Unification Party was similarly broken up.

No arrests were made in either incident. Police hauled some demonstrators in both groups to remote sections of Seoul and dropped them off.

Dissidents are divided among themselves over the question of accepting the government's offer of conditional release of prisoners. Some have hoped their imprisoned relatives would sign the statement and come home. Others have insisted that no prisoner should come out unless all are released. Some have asserted that repentance would sanction the goverment's proclamations.

In an interview this week, a government official denied that the prisoners are being asked to abandon their political convictions by signing the release statement.

"It seems to me there is a misunderstanding on the part of the families about repentance," said Kim Seong Jin, minister of culture and information.

"When we ask them to show repentance it does not mean they must change their political philosophies, it means repentance for violating existing law we have no intention to carry out any brainwashing project. So when they feel sorry for violating the law they will be released."

Kim, in an interview, said the government cannot tolerate demonstrations or political criticism outside of Parliament because it would serve to encourage North Korea, which would view it as a sign of weakness.