In a sweeping amnesty decree that should ease tension over the human rights issue with the United States, South Korea announced today that opposition political leader Kim Dae Jung and 106 other dissidents will be freed from prison next week.
The amnesty, which was announced yesterday in Seoul by the South Korean Justice Ministry, is timed to coincide with the inauguration of President Park Chung Hee, who will begin a new six-year term on Wednesday.
Kim 53, the country's foremost political opponent of Park, was convicted in 1976 of violating an emergency decree that outlaws criticism of the president except in the National Assembly. He was accused of attempting to start a popular rebellion against Park.
Kim ran as the main opposition candidate in 1971 and received more than 45 percent of the vote. When Park imposed martial law in 1972, Kim went into self-imposed exile to Tokyo. In 1973 he was abducted by unknown persons and returned forcibly to Seoul. There was speculation he was abducted by agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
He is serving a five-year term and has been held in recent months under heavy guard in a hospital in Seoul.
The Justice Ministry said the 10( political prisoners will be freed next week and their prison terms stayed. Opposition leaders put the total number of such prisoners at up to 300.
The amnesty affects 5,378 persons jailed on a variety of charges. A total of 2 million persons who have been charged with minor crimes over the years will have their civil rights restored.
The decree also will reduce the prison term of Kim Chi Ha, 38, a poet of international reputation who had been convicted for violating South Korea's tough anticommunist law in 1976. The poet's life term is to be reduced to 20 years in the amnesty.
The amnesty should go far toward improving relations between the South Korean and American governments and toward removing some of the international pressure on Park's rule.
It had been rumored since last summer and had become the subject of debate in the National Assembly where the opposition New Democratic Party had called for a holiday period amnesty.
It may also pave the way for a summit meeting next year between Park and President Carter, who last month added a bit more pressure to the U.S. campaign for a relaxation of pressure on South Korea's political dissidents.
In a letter to Park, Carter reportedly held out the promise of a summit meeting in Seoul sometime next year. According to informed sources, the letter also reminded the South Korean president of an earlier message transmitted through the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, William Gleysteen.
The sources said that Gleysteen had told Park that the president expected to see some improvement in the human rights situation. They said that while no specific condition was attached, Carter was making it clear that an improvement in human rights would enhance the chances of a summit.
The South Korean government had been eager for a summit meeting to ease tensions caused by the Congressional bribery scandal and by the phased withdrawal of U.S. grounds forces from South Korea.
The amnesty announcement coincided with a minor Cabinet reshuffle in which Prime Minister Choi Kyu Hah retained his post.
It was not clear from the announcement how many political prisoners might be left in jail. The exact number of those imprisoned for political reasons is sometimes disputed, but last month dissident leaders claimed that between 200 and 300 political prisoners were being held.
Many of them are students jailed during a series of unusually strident demonstrations that began last violating an emergency proclamation that prohibits criticism of the government except within the National Assembly. A number are also accused of violating the anti-communist law.