Imagine the horror and turmoil that would have evolved in the United States, if, after the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, the U.S. government had tried Martin Luther King Jr. for subversion and sentenced him to death.

Kim Dae Jung is South Korea's Martin Luther King Jr. Following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee, Kim and thousands of students, human-rights activists and clergy, many of them educated in the United States, began peaceful demonstrations in an attempt to achieve a civilian democracy to replace the Park dictatorship. Hundreds were arrested and tried by a military court that had been appointed by the Park regime and remained loyal to the military strongman, Gen. Chon Doo Hwan. Chon was elected to succeed Park by the rubber-stamp national assembly, which has no legitimate ties to the people.

Kim Dae Jung has been sentenced to death by hanging. Kim emerged as a central figure in opposition to Park Chung Hee when he became the unity candidate of a fragmented opposition party in the president elections of 1971. In that election, Kim came close to defeating Park, in spite of massive government efforts at intimidation and vote-buying. Park got 53 percent of the vote; Kim got 45 percent.

Since that election, Kim Dae Jung has been the object of multiple efforts to silence him. First came a mysterious automobile accident and later a kidnapping from his hotel in Tokyo, then imprisonment and house arrest. Forced to resign from politics because of his "criminal record," he joined with former president Yun Po Sun and Quaker elder Hahm Suk Hon in organizing a national nonpartisan coalition for the restoration of democracy that united all elements of dissent. That coalition, which includes representatives of the religious, intellectual, journalistic, labor and rural communities, is demanding democracy and respect for human rights.

South Korea is the nation where thousands of Americans died defending freedom between 1950 and 1953. The United States has viewed that country as an integral part of its strategy of containment of communism in the region. But with the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China and the disappearance of the fear of the "yellow hordes," the strategy of containment has given way to incentives for trade and cooperation with China and a desire for peace in the region. The continued maintenance of the heavy-handed totalitarian Korean dictatorship, on the other hand, is paving the way for violence, chaos and destruction of that very same freedom that American GIs died to protect.

The State Department has issued mild warnings. but has refused to discuss cutoffs of military assistance, or postponement or reconsideration of economic aid commitments and export-import bank loans.

The government of Gen. Chon appears determined to take advantage of U.S. election confusion to destroy civilian moderate leadership, which the general views as a threat to his dictatorial powers.

Kim Dae Jung last March issued a statement of the goals of the coalition for restoration of democracy. The document is strikingly moderate. It calls for a realization of a liberal democracy, strengthening of the anti-communist national security posture, development of a free economic system, attainment of social justice, strengthening of "close and good relations with friendly nations such as the U.S. and Japan," and unification with North Korea through peaceful dialogue.

Without moderate democratic leadership, the continuing economic recovery and growth of South Korea are in danger, strengthening extreme solutions of revolutionary groups bent on violence or underground guerrilla activity. Needless to say, this would invite the participation an infiltration of the North Koreans.

Strategic security interests and human rights converge in the case of Kim Dae Jung. To avoid further polarizing and traumatizing South Korean society, the military government should drop the false charges against Kim and his co-defendants, release all political prisoners and set a timetable for full and free democratic elections.

U.S. elections will be over in a few weeks and a Congress still committed to human rights and democracy will find it difficult to subsidize the repression of South Korean citizens with American tax dollars. s

The execution of former Pakistani President Ali Bhutto was conveniently forgotten once the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. But don't expect everyone to forget if a Korean dictator elected by no one executes by hanging Kim Dae Jung. Christians of conscience and U.S. human-rights adherents will keep this issue alive, and a martyred Kim Dae Jung will prove to be a far more powerful threat in death than in life.