MOKPO, SOUTH KOREA -- In a plaza of this southern port city, an 85-year-old gentleman with six-inch wisps of white beard hanging from his chin rested his straw hat on a table and remembered Kim Dae Jung's first election victory, way back in 1961.

"I knew his father well," Park Hyun said. "I was supporting Kim, and everyone knew I was supporting Kim, and while anyone backing the other man was getting envelopes of cash tucked in his pockets, I was getting nothing.

"So I went to his father and complained," Park recalled, chuckling. "But all I got was a drink."

It is the kind of story that Kim Dae Jung, now 63 and still casting himself as the moral alternative in Korean politics, would enjoy. For after a long enforced absence from public view, Kim returned home to Mokpo last week and, with a tumultuous welcome, reclaimed his place on Korea's center stage.

Kim never has held an important government job, and for most of the past 16 years he has been either vilified or ignored by the Korean press. Yet throughout this extraordinary Korean summer, full of the promise of democracy and foreboding of military intervention, questions about Kim have preoccupied the nation.

Will Kim be the man to lead South Korea, finally, into democracy, or will he excite regional rivalries and bitter recriminations, turning Koreans on each other once more? Will he return to everyday politics, or will he keep the role of spiritual leader and martyr that the government has forced on him for so long? Will Kim -- whose nearly successful campaign during this nation's last real election in 1971 shocked its rulers -- run for president again?

So far Kim has managed his return from years of jail, exile and house arrest in vintage style: his intentions unstated, his silences significant, his actions hard to predict and harder to interpret afterwards. Kim -- his face broader and his gait more labored than when he was elected to the legislature in 1961 -- is still an imposing presence, his suits matching his jet-black hair, his silver-tipped walking stick lending authority to his slow and even movements.

A bestselling memoir by a former bodyguard, rich with gossip of bargirls and political payoffs, has enlivened the summer and, whatever its mixture of truth and slander, reminded Koreans of Kim's two faces. Not only a deeply religious fighter for democracy and survivor of persecution that might have killed a lesser man, Kim is also a machine boss attended at times by sycophants, a wily politician who has outmaneuvered his rivals more times than they care to recount.

Koreans, more familiar now with the legend than the man, debate whether he is a Mahatma Gandhi or Mussolini or Mayor Daley, a spiritual leader or a demagogic orator. While Kim wrestles with his decision, or perhaps just waits for the right moment to make it known, his many enemies can only plant rumors, trade gossip and wait.

Waiting at the front of the line is Kim Young Sam, nominal leader of the opposition party and Kim's rival of two decades. Kim Young Sam insists that the two should decide soon which man will lead the opposition into election battle; Kim Dae Jung only smiles and says he is in no rush.

The scenario must be maddeningly familiar to Kim Young Sam, who was 12 votes short of presidential nomination in 1971 when Kim Dae Jung lured away a small third faction and grabbed the nomination on a second ballot. More dapper than Kim Dae Jung, less somber, reassuringly middle-class, reasonable and unemotional in his politics, Kim Young Sam has suffered for his principles over the years, but less than his rival -- and in the Korean arithmetic of politics, the sum of suffering counts heavily. So Kim Young Sam, 59, shakes his rival's hand and smiles for the cameras, promising unity and waiting for the elder Kim to tip his hand.

Waiting, too, are the generals, who have controlled the country directly or through their allies since Kim Dae Jung entered politics and who, in some cases, despise the opposition leader with a visceral ferocity. Last January, opposition party vice president Park Yong Man quoted an ex-general who headed the Korean CIA, Chang Se Dong, as saying he would oppose Kim's reentry into politics even with his life.

Since then, Chang has left office and Korean politics has turned upside down. Street protests in June persuaded the government to promise elections for late this year, and ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo, a former general who helped president Chun Doo Hwan stage his coup in 1980, is a born-again democrat, running hard against, he hopes, both Kims.

As part of the promised democratization, Kim Dae Jung was freed to make speeches and run for office for the first time since 1979. But at least some of the generals have not changed their opinions with the new decree, and they too are waiting to see what Kim will do.

"The military should obey the chief executive," Lt. Gen. Ko Myung Seung, head of the Defense Security Command -- the position from which Chun launched his coup in 1980 -- is said to have told Korean reporters during a July briefing. "But where is the country that would have such a man as president?"

And, of course, Kim Dae Jung's supporters are waiting -- as they showed by the hundreds of thousands last week, pouring into the streets to welcome him to his home province after 15 years, carrying banners proclaiming him "Our Nation's Hope" and chanting, "Candidate! Candidate! Candidate!"

The size of the crowds and their remarkable orderliness helped dissolve two of Kim's reputed drawbacks. During his years in the political wilderness, those who disliked him -- including more than one U.S. official -- would say that he could no longer attract crowds and that, if he did, he would surely incite them to violence.

The range of ages at the Kwangju and Mokpo parades showed that Kim still has some magic. But there were occasional hints that his long absence during the political prime of his life may have hurt.

"People my age don't know that much about him, but we have heard that Kim Dae Jung is an excellent politician who hasn't had the right timing or luck, and who has suffered a lot," Kang Soh Yung, a 19-year-old college student, said here. "In a sense, young people sympathize with him because he's never had a chance . . . . But we support him because there is no option among the younger generation, there are no younger politicians."

Kim, born in an island fishing village near here, won his legislative seat in 1961, just before Park Chung Hee took power in a coup. A decade of opposition politics carried him to the nomination in 1971, when he won 46 percent of the vote in what he maintained was a crooked election -- and frightened Park into proclaiming a new constitution that guaranteed him power for life.

Since then, Kim's story has been one of ordeals, narrow escapes and long periods of waiting. He survived a traffic accident of suspicious cause, and a 1973 kidnaping widely acknowledged in Seoul and Washington to be the work of South Korean security agents.

For all but a few months since the kidnaping, he has been jailed, exiled or confined to his house in Seoul. In September 1980, not long after Chun took over, Kim was sentenced to die for sedition -- a sentence commuted four months later under U.S. pressure.

By all accounts, this painful history has changed Kim. To the ambitious politician with a dazzling talent for oratory something was added: a deep Catholic faith, a fatalism about his own life, a sense that he has been chosen for a mission.

Here is Kim, for example, remembering, a few years ago, his hours on a small boat on Japan's Inland Sea after Korean CIA agents snatched him from a Tokyo hotel and tied weights to his legs: "They forced a piece of wood into my mouth and held it fast with tape, put a blindfold over my eyes and strapped me to a long board behind my back, the kind we use in Korea to prepare bodies for burial. They were preparing to throw me into the sea.

"At that very moment, Christ appeared by my right side. I grabbed the left sleeve of his robe and pleaded with him, 'My Lord, there is much left for me to do for my people' . . . . My life was saved, and I have come to believe that Jesus accepted my plea, to make me participate in his work for justice."

One-quarter of South Korea's population and many of its leaders are Christian, but Kim's critics assert that his messianic streak makes him dangerous, likely to evolve into yet another authoritarian ruler if given a chance.

They say his suffering will encourage him to seek retribution against those now in power, just as his origins here in Cholla Province, long the neglected and rebellious side of the peninsula, will lead him to punish other regions.

Kim and his aides argue that only he has the moral authority, the history of suffering, to turn back calls for retribution from others. But many of those in power do not trust his words, including his repeated disavowal of a desire for revenge.

"Kim Dae Jung's political track record shows that he is a wily and crafty person expert at agitating the people with all manner of mean, clever and eye-catching trickery," a progovernment tract proclaimed two years ago.

Despite the frequent attacks on him as a dangerous leftist, Kim Dae Jung's platform seems closer to Walter Mondale's, as one diplomat here said: a strong defense, a fairer distribution of wealth, close ties to the United States but improved ties with North Korea, too.

But, of course, there is no track record, no way to know for sure how a president Kim would behave.

Last November, as dissidents in Seoul were fighting vainly for direct elections, Kim announced an "unequivocal" decision not to run for president if Chun gave in. "If I am a hindrance to the Chun regime's progress toward democratic reforms, I will gladly offer myself to the altar of sacrifice," he said. "Becoming president has never been my goal {but rather} to help my people deliver themselves from today's darkness and exploitation and restore freedom, justice and human integrity."

On July 1, although he could not bring himself to utter Kim's name, Chun announced that the opposition leader's rights would be restored and a direct election held. Kim's aides announced before long that his "unequivocal" November pledge no longer applied because circumstances had changed.

But Kim has yet to commit himself. In the village of Naju, not far from where he barely survived his car accident, Kim spoke emotionally last week to a cheering crowd.

"I will be always with you when you struggle for freedom, peace and unification {with North Korea}," he said. "Each breath I take, each beating of my heart, will be one with yours." A foreshadowing of his campaign, or a consolation in advance for not leading his faithful into democracy's promised land -- either meaning was there. Koreans could only watch and guess and gossip.