President Reagan's invitation to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to visit the United States boosts the latter's position at home and abroad and ends a long period of strain in relations between Washington and Seoul.
It probably also means that Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's leading opposition politician, will not be executed. The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its verdict on Mr. Kim's appeal against the death sentence Jan. 23. Whatever the verdict, it is considered inconceivable that the fledgling Reagan administration would invite General Chun to Washington without some assurances that Mr. Kim's life would be spared.
An official announcement made in Washington and Seoul Jan. 21 said that President Chun would visit Washington for talks with President Reagan on Feb. 2 on "bilateral political, economic, and security aspects as well as regional issues affecting northeast Asia." General and Mrs. Chun are expected to leave Seoul Jan. 28 and to visit Los Angeles and New York on their way to Washington.
General Chun will be the first foreign chief of state to visit Washington after Mr. Reagan's inauguration.The new President and his secretary of state, Gen. Alexander Haig, have moved quickly to underline the importance they attach to the security and stability of Sourth Korea, where 39,000 US soldiers help man a round-the-clock defense against the threat of infiltration, subversion, and outright invasion from communist North Korea.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before his confirmation, General Haig said that strengthening the US relationship with South Korea would be a "key aspec" of policies he would recommend to President Reagan.
Many South Koreans who have not been notably warm toward General Chun in the past greeted the announcement of the forthcoming US-Korean summit with undisguised relief. For both supporters and opponents of General Chun, a central fact of their political situation is the North Korean threat to South Korea's security -- in short, to their own homes and lives.
The almost universal perception of this threat does not prevent sharp political disagreement among South Koreans over democracy and human rights or over the best means of fighting inflation and unemployment.
But whatever position South Koreans may take on these issues, the preoccupation with security is overwhelming, as is the perception that nothing can take the place of the security link with the United States. For this reason , the strain that began in Korean-US relations when President Carter announced his intention of partially withdrawing US ground troops in South Korea, and that intensified with disagreements over human rights and the Kim Dae Jung case, has caused deep uneasiness among the South Korean public.
The announcement of the forthcoming Chun visit lifts this uneasiness and opens the hope that, as one local newspaper put it, a "new chapter" is opening in US-Korean relations.
The announcement inevitably strengthens General Chun's own position. The general is still provisional President until February's elections.
Martial law is still in force -- although General Chun has promised it will be lifted before the elections and may even be ended Jan. 24. The lifting of martial law will legally end a situation under which the military security command controlled almost all aspects of life in Korea, from censorship of the press to the guidance of county officials.
In practice, the generals and colonels who helped General Chun achieve supreme political power are expected to remain powerful, whether within the Army itself or in party or government positions. But the Chun administration has promised that the period of political and economic experimentation by fiat is coming to an end, and that henceforth changes will take place within a moderate and predictable institutional framework.
In this context, President Chun's visit to Washington gives him an opportunity to explain his policies to an international audience and to get across the essential image of a South Korea settling down to tackle fundamental economic problems pushed aside during the months he was preoccupied with achieving and holding onto political power.