DAEGAE PURAK, SOUTH KOREA -- This serene fishing village, with its modestly prosperous homes and lush rice paddies, seems to embody the sturdy middle-class stability that is both the greatest strength and chief liability of native son Kim Young Sam as he seeks to become South Korea's next president.

Throughout his long career, Kim, 59, has seemed to carry within himself the tranquility and self-satisfaction of his childhood village, where the whitewashed church his father built overlooks the red nets drying on the beach.

Now, running against three others in this nation's first democratic presidential race in 16 years, Kim is laying claim to the middle ground, presenting himself as champion of both democracy and middle-class stability and hoping that his career as the consummate establishment opposition leader will carry him to the top.

He is expected to be nominated by the opposition Reunification Democratic Party to run as its candidate for president.

Kim's problem, in a nation that sometimes equates commitment with suffering, is the impression among some voters that he has been too much a man of the comfortable middle, that he has not sacrificed enough during his decades of opposition to South Korea's military-installed regimes.

Kim Dae Jung, another longtime opposition leader and now a rival candidate, can talk about his years in jail, the assassination attempts he barely survived; ask Kim Young Sam how he suffered and he will tell you, among other things, about missing his eldest son's wedding while under house arrest.

But many voters say that Kim Young Sam, too, has paid his dues and that his nonrevolutionary history is reassuring. While Kim Young Sam may not be the most charismatic or intellectual candidate, they say, he may be best suited to manage a transition to democracy, with less motivation for revenge and no inclination to stir things up.

Many voters fear that the election of ruling party candidate Roh Tae Woo would lead to student uprisings, while Kim Dae Jung's victory might provoke a military coup. Kim Young Sam is portraying himself as more committed to democracy than Roh or former premier Kim Jong Pil but as more leery of sudden change than Kim Dae Jung.

"People of my generation, we remem-ber the big guns and terrible times of the Korean War, and we want stability," said a middle-aged taxi driver. "I think if Mr. Roh wins, it will be noisy. And if Mr. Kim Dae Jung wins, it will be noisy. So the best thing is the middle ground, Kim Young Sam.

"Some people say he is not strong enough or smart enough," the driver added. "I don't know. But he is not corrupt, he is not tainted, he is honest."

In elementary school, he was "just an ordinary pupil, nothing special," his uncle Kim Hong Kook recently recalled. But, born into his village's most prominent family, he moved to the seaport of Pusan to attend the region's best high school and then graduated from the nation's top university in Seoul.

In a Confucian nation that values education highly, that background gives Kim an edge over Kim Dae Jung, who never graduated from college. Kim Young Sam's roots in southeastern Korea, which has long dominated the nation's politics, further place him in the camp of the haves, while Kim Dae Jung represents the long-neglected southwest.

Still, Kim Young Sam has not pursued the complacent career in politics that his pedigree might have allowed. In 1961 he opposed then-general Park Chung Hee's coup d'etat, and he has remained in opposition ever since.

"Many people with good family ties, with good schooling, did go along with the ruling party," Kim said in a recent interview. "The most important influence on me, to stay with the people who were suffering from dictatorship, was the Christianity I have had from my early days, which taught me how to live in a just way, to believe in truth and morality."

Christians make up one-quarter of South Korea's population and a disproportionate share of its fighters for independence. Attending church is no political disadvantage in this predominantly Buddhist and Confucian country, and in fact both opposition Kims are Christian.

Even in that apparent similarity, however, their differences stand out. Kim Dae Jung is a Catholic who talks of Jesus appearing before him and saving his life so that he could lead his people to freedom; Kim Young Sam is a Presbyterian elder and the son of a Presbyterian elder, who rarely dwells on his religion in public.

The youngest politician ever elected to the National Assembly, Kim Young Sam rose rapidly in the opposition party throughout the 1960s, when Park ruled with relative tolerance. He seemed poised in 1971 to lead his party in a presidential election against Park.

But at their party convention that year, Kim Dae Jung outmaneuvered him, defying predictions to snatch the nomination on the second ballot. Kim Dae Jung went on to lose narrowly, so frightening Park and the establishment that he has been the government's number one enemy ever since.

Four years later, Kim Young Sam emerged from a meeting with Park with a smile and a handshake. The meeting came not long after Kim Dae Jung had been kidnaped and nearly killed by Park's security forces, according to reliable accounts, and not long before Kim Dae Jung and many others went to jail for criticizing Park's increasingly dictatorial rule.

"At the time, Park Chung Hee promised me he would end his presidency as soon as possible," Kim Young Sam explained recently.

That early history convinced some Kim Dae Jung supporters that the other Kim would always lag behind their man, in tactics and in principle. But for the next decade, Kim Young Sam fought against the regime while managing to stay on top of the opposition's often rough-and-tumble politics.

In 1979, Park ousted Kim Young Sam from the National Assembly, provoking riots in Kim's home area of Pusan and Masan that threatened Park's regime. When Park was assassinated by his own intelligence chief shortly thereafter, Kim emerged as a leading presidential candidate -- until Chun Doo Hwan, then an Army general, staged another coup and put Kim under house arrest.

Now Chun has promised to step down in February, allowing the first peaceful transition of power in the nation's history, and Kim Young Sam believes his time has come. Although the two Kims promised throughout the summer to unite behind a single candidate so as not to divide the opposition vote, Kim Young Sam now says that his rival is opposed by "veto groups" -- a code word for the military -- and would aggravate conflict between the southwestern and southeastern regions.

"Only Kim Young Sam can achieve an end to military rule," he told a vast crowd at his recent kickoff rally in Pusan.

Kim Young Sam now presents himself as the politician who fought hardest and suffered most for democracy: his house arrest, his ouster from the National Assembly, a 23-day hunger strike in 1983. True, Kim Dae Jung was sentenced to death and spent two years in jail when Chun took over, but he then allowed himself to be sent into exile -- whereas, said Kim Young Sam, "I made a clear statement that until my country became a democracy I would not leave."

His rallies have attracted larger and more enthusiastic crowds than Roh's, though not the single-minded devotion that Kim Dae Jung often elicits from his backers. Supporters at the Pusan rally described Kim as "experienced," "responsible" and "orderly."

Here in tranquil Daegae village, on the southeastern island of Koje, Kim's neighbor Pak Du Nam seemed not to care that Kim has not martyred himself for the cause.