Reports from South Korea dramatize what could turn out to be a serious miscalculation by various repressive regimes in regard to the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. He is not as insensitive to human rights as suggested by the elation seen in Seoul and, for other examples, in Argentina and Chile. IT would be tragic if South Korea's strongman President, Chun Doo Hwan, should let the prospect of a Reagan presidency encourage the carrying out of the death sentence against opposition leader Kim Dae Jung.
But there is speculation that Mr. Chun may hasten the appeals process, with the Supreme Court declining to commute Mr. Kim's sentence and the President refusing to stay the execution. Then, by this reasoning, a fresh beginning could be made with a Reagan administration presumably less troublesome about human rights than President Carter.
We can find no nation supporting the execution of Mr. Kim. Mr. Chun would not be doing Mr. Reagan a political favor, at home or abroad, by permitting any inference linking him to an atmosphere for elimination of dissent.
At the moment, it is up to the Carter administration to play America's role -- which should be a firm but unabrasive one -- on the side of progress toward human rights. No one predicts democracy will come overnight to a land like South Korea, which is once more making a constitutional effort to inch forward. But certainly a line can be drawn by one ally against condoning the kind of injustice by another ally that the execution of Kim Dae Jung would represent.
Authoritarian regimes that are friends of the United States may take encouragement from the Reagan/Republican position against using American policy to "force" American standards of democracy on them. But they should note that, after his election, Mr. Reagan reaffirmed that "I think all of us in this country are dedicated to the belief in human rights." Such a belief figures in his deep concern about the Soviet Union, with its horrendous record of human rights violations. When it comes to South Korea, he ran on a platform both recognizing the nation's security problems and pledging that "we will encourage continued efforts to expand political participation and individual liberties within the country."
What Mr. Reagan reasonably calls for is "a consistent policy." He puts it this way: "I don't think that you can turn away from some country because here and there they do not totally agree with our concept of human rights, and then at the same time maintain relations with other countries, or try to develop them where human rights are virtually nonexistent." In practice this should not mean an excuse for governments to assume the United States under President Reagan won't care what they do. Rather it should mean that the US will seek consistency not in an evenhanded neglect of human rights but in an evenhanded support of them.