Reagan's first guest

Public images and symbols are as important a part of diplomacy as private talks and communications. So President Reagan's invitation to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan to be the first foreign visitor to the United States in the new administration is no inadvertence. It will set the tone and direction of US foreign policy. Secretary of State Alexander Haig clearly intends to begin repairing US relations with crucial nations and bolstering the image of the US as a strong, reliable ally. In view of the importance of South Korea to the stability of East Asia, it is not surprising that it heads the list of diplomatic problems to be tackled early on.

To understand this, however, is not to be left without concern that the first visitor honored in Washington should be the head of an authoritarian government. Informal practice has been to invite the British prime minister first, and Margaret Thatcher is indeed arriving in the US capital at the end of February. This early get together with Britain, America's close ally and friend reflects historical ties and, most important, the heritage and democratic values the two nations share.

But it seems that the administration is using the occasion to signal a shift of American policy with respect to the sensitive issue of human rights. Judging from Mr. Reagan's past statements, there will be less stress on human rights and less public lecturing of foreign countries about violations of them. He and his aides have felt -- and not without some justification -- that President's Carter's human rights policy often failed in purpose because it was inconsistently applied and unwisely conducted in the limelight of publicity.

Does President Reagan intend to abandon the cause of human rights? We trust not, and in fact think not. Much can be said for quiet diplomacy as a more effective means of nudging governments away from oppressive practices and toward democratic rule. The Carter policy had decided flaws. But surely the US must continue to be perceived as a nation committed to fostering political and other liberties, a nation responsive to people's yearnings for freedom. To abandon that image of America would be to lose the most effective weapon in the competition with communism. It would also be to signal unpopular dictators that they can depend on unlimited US support and thereby to encourage autocratic rule. Iran is an object lesson here.

We hope Secretary Haig sees it as his task to fashion a human rights policy which is fervent in its goals but realistic and effective in its application. The President has, to his credit, sent out some good signals. The fact that Mr. Reagan spoke out publicly against the execution of Kim Dae Jung no doubt led to the decision in Seoul to commute the sentence of the Korean dissident and to lift martial law -- both of which are welcome if only limited steps. But it would be a mistake to give President Chun the impression from his reception in Washington that he now has an inside track into the White House and that the US will henceforth turn a blind eye to South Korean authoritarianism. On the contrary, it can be made clear that the US has an interest in how the upcoming elections in Korea are carried out, and that not only sparing Kim Dae Jung's life but releasing him from prison would contribute to better US-Korean relations.

It hardly needs mentioning that governments elsewhere, notably in Latin America, will be eyeing the Chun trip for its human rights nuances. Inasmuch as President Reagan has chose to break with practice and receive Chun first, therefore, he will have an early opportunity to indicate that America's firmness in defense matters and commitment to South Korean security does not mean a forsaking of i ts democratic ideals.

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