SEOUL, OCT. 1 -- A prominent South Korean dissident, jailed for the past two years, today received the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award, underscoring the imprisonment of scores of political activists as the country proceeds toward its first free presidential election in 16 years.

Kim Keun Tae, 40, and his wife, In Jae Keun, won the award for their "long commitment to the quest for human rights and their unfaltering determination to defend their fellow citizens who have been tortured, jailed and often killed for speaking out," according to Lee Fentress, chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Frentress spoke in Washington.

According to credible reports, Kim has been beaten and tortured repeatedly.

Opposition politicians have demanded the release of Kim and more than 100 others whom they describe as political prisoners.

Arrests for what the government considers to be improper thoughts are continuing even as the country moves toward democracy. A 22-year-old university student here was arrested 10 days ago for possessing an 18-page booklet praising North Korea.

But President Chun Doo Hwan and his deputies, who freed hundreds of prisoners in early July as part of a promised democratization, have said that remaining prisoners, including Kim, are dangerous leftists who should not be released.

Their firmness reflects a conviction that, with a hostile and heavily armed North Korea only 30 miles from Seoul, leftist thought and speech can be as dangerous as espionage or revolutionary acts.

"In a democratic society, of course, a variety of voices is natural," the English-language Korea Herald editorialized two weeks ago, reflecting the government view.

"Yet, we must discern which ones are intolerable as they threaten our survival . . . . We must protect the innocent from falling prey to agitators whose goal is to undermine our liberal democracy."

The police announced last month that they had placed about 8,000 members of 24 student and dissident groups under special watch, suspecting them of planning a "popular uprising" timed with the election. Some of those under surveillance already have been arrested.

Kim Keun Tae was arrested in 1985 for organizing and attending meetings "feared to cause common unrest."

He also was charged with saying things that resembled North Korean propaganda, which is a crime in South Korea.

Kim was a Seoul National University student leader in the early 1970s and then spent most of that decade in hiding, working and organizing in factories.

In 1983 he founded the National Youth Alliance for Democracy, dedicated to democratization, reunification of Korea and a fairer distribution of wealth. He was arrested Sept. 4, 1985, and held incommunicado in the police station for two weeks.

As he was being transferred to another jail, he encountered his wife by chance and told her he had been tortured.

Despite repeated requests, the prosecutors and courts refused to allow a medical examination to test Kim's claims.

At one point, guards confiscated a scab he had saved as proof. Kim said in court that he was tortured repeatedly with electric shocks and beatings.

"The police forced me to surrender," he said at his trial in December. "They said they were going to break me, and that is exactly what they did.

"By Sept. 20, I was covered all over with wounds and couldn't stand any more," he continued. "At last, on Sept. 25, I gave in to them. In groups, they beat me up and asked me to beg for my life by crawling on the floor naked. I did what I was told."

South Korean officials have said they do not engage in torture except in a few cases of police wrongdoing. But numerous reports have surfaced, including that of a student who died in police custody early this year.

The most recent example involves a Korean resident of Japan, Shim Han Sik, whose conviction for violating the National Security Act was upheld by the South Korean Supreme Court yesterday.

The court suspended his sentence, however, and found him not guilty of espionage after ruling that his confession had been coerced.