The release today of eight leading political prisoners has signaled the government's most emphatic gesture toward accommodation with human rights advocates so far, but it shed no new light on the fate of South Korea's most celebrated prisoner, Kim Dai Jung.
Authorities released poet Kim Chi Ha, 39, one of the country's most prominent political prisoners, and seven other persons in what an official described as an attempt to promote "national unity."
Kim Chi Ha, who had received international attention for his antigoverment satirical writings, was freed early this morning from a Seoul prison and later reunited with his family in the eastern city of Wonju. The seven others freed had been jailed for antigovernment activity in the past year.
There was no mention, however, of the fate of Kim Dae Jung, who has been sentenced to death and has become a center of international concern.
The United States, Japan, West Germany and other countries have appealed to Seoul to grant clemency for Kim Dae Jung, who was convicted of sedition in September, and Defense Secretary Harold Brown is expected to renew that request during a visit Saturday.
In a statement accompanying Kim Chi Ha's release, Justice Minister Oh Tak Keun said the government faced a "new era" and had decided to release prisoners who had repented their past mistakes, although no statement of repentance was made public.
The justice minister said the decision to suspend sentences of the eight prisoners was made for reasons of "national unity" to let them participate "in construction of a democratic welfare state in the new era."
But that was accompanied by a warning that a certain category of political violators could not expect leniency. Those whose actions are aimed at "destroying the basic democratic order" will never be forgiven, Oh said. That description seemed, in the light of previous statements, to include Kim Dae Jung, who was accused of attempting to overthrow the government by supporting agitation last spring.
Kim Chi Ha's freedom had been sought for nearly five years by the United States and other countries and the Catholic Church. The government of the late president Park Chung Hee had refused many petitions in his behalf, although it had periodically freed political prisoners of lesser stature.
The poet's work in the late 1960s and early 1970s was marked by bitter satirical attacks on the Park government and on corruption among businessmen, ministers, politicians, and military and government leaders.
Those classes were sharply satirized in Kim's most famous political poem, "The Five Bandits." It pictured a representative of each competing for the honor of becoming the most successful thief.
His troubles with Park's government began in 1970 and by early 1974 he had been charged with helping antigovernment organizations and sentenced to life imprisonment. Released briefly in early 1975, he was rearrested, charged with violating the tough anticommunist law, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and later to 20 years.
Today, Kim returned to a reunion with his wife, mother and young son. He seemed to be in good condition.
Sources said Kim had apparently benefited from the persistent appeals of the Roman Catholic bishop of Wonju, Daniel Chi, who has enjoyed relatively good relations with the new government of President Chun Doo Hwan.
Six of the others released today had taken part in a large antigovernment demonstration near the Young Women's Christian Association in November 1979, shortly after Park was assassinated.
The eighth person freed was Yu In Ho, a professor at Chungang University. He had been sentenced to two years in prison as part of the group of 24 dissidents who were tried in September with Kim Dae Jung.