The South Korean government accused dissident leader Kim Dae Jung today of striking a police officer in the face during a scuffle at Seoul's Kimpo International Airport yesterday.
In its first detailed account of the fracas, the government categorically denied that its officers had struck or abused anyone and laid full blame on Kim and indirectly on four Americans who accompanied him home from exile in the United States. Kim denied the government charges.
Government spokesman Choi Tae Soon said at a press conference this afternoon that "there might have been some pushing, but there was no beating or punching whatsoever" by police.
The statement represented a counterattack by the image-conscious government against a barrage of bad publicity over the incident in the international press.
The Americans have charged that Korean police assaulted them and Kim and violently pulled the politician away from them and bundled him into an elevator several minutes after they got off a flight from Tokyo.
One of the Americans, Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.) has said he saw Kim punched repeatedly. Kim said he felt pain but cannot be sure if he was hit or not.
Tonight, another of the Americans who was present, former assistant secretary of state for human rights Patricia Derian, repeated earlier statements that the group had been pummeled by large numbers of security men.
"It's not surprising that a government that would do that would lie about it," she said.
Kim spent his first full day back in his country confined by police to his house in Seoul. He continued to meet foreign journalists and said he took a few phone calls from supporters.
Kim had lived in the United States since his release from prison for medical treatment in 1982. He was serving a 20-year sentence for sedition, and had originally been sentenced to death. The government has said it will not require him to serve the remaining 17 years of his sentence, but he has been prohibited from participating in politics.
The scuffle has turned into a minor international incident. The U.S. Embassy filed a formal note of protest with the Seoul government yesterday.
Today, the delegation received a letter from U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Walker expressing regret for the incident at the airport.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Edward Djerejian said the United States had been assured in advance that embassy representatives could greet the Kim flight, which "might have prevented the incident," The Associated Press reported. "There were understandings we thought we had with the Korean government that were not carried out," he said.
The two other American leaders of the delegation with Kim are Rep. Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio) and former ambassador to El Salvador Robert White. Government spokesman Choi said Kim struck the chief of the Seoul police force's security section in the face with his fist and attempted to strike another policeman with his cane.
Choi said Kim hit a member of his own entourage after the man suggested that Kim give in to requests from immigration officials to process his passport.
Reached by telephone tonight at his home, where police have confined him, Kim denied striking the security chief. But he said that in the heat of the moment he had raised his hands toward the man as a gesture of protest.
He also raised his cane as a gesture of outrage, he said. Kim said that he had pushed, not struck the associate, due to a short temper caused by exhaustion. Kim said he had also pushed some of the police. "Who first used violence?" he asked. "Government officials. I only pushed back."
Today, White, Feighan and former Philippine foreign minister Raul Manglapus, who was also part of the delegation accompanying Kim, met with South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Won Kwung to discuss Kim and the airport incident. White and Feighan told Lee they expected an apology from the government, Manglapus said after the meeting. Choi's account today indicated the government believed no apology was necessary.
Delegation members have said they were traveling with Kim to protect him from assassination or injury. They wanted to block a repetition of the 1983 murder of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino on his return home.
According to the Americans, the government had agreed that they could accompany Kim from the airport to his house. Their uninterrupted presence was necessary to ensure his safety, they said.
But Choi said there was never such an agreement. To protect Kim, police decided to separate him from the Americans because, "the fewer people around, the easier the job could be done," Choi said.
Meanwhile campaigning began to wind down for Tuesday's National Assembly vote.
The government also was reported to have freed 19 of 20 people placed under house arrest earlier in the week. However, it kept the restrictions on Kim Young Sam, who shares the spotlight with Kim Dae Jung as a major opposition leader. Neither one is permitted to run in the election under an order banning a number of opposition figures from participating in politics.
Tonight the delegation accompanying Kim attended a dinner at a restaurant with dissident leaders. However, the host, Kim Young Sam, was barred by police from leaving his house to attend.
Police are on guard outside Kim Dae Jung's house, and he has been told he will not be allowed out. Choi said Kim Dae Jung was not under house arrest, but was being kept at home for protection.