With the lifting of martial law and the commutation of Kim Dae Jung's death sentence, South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan hopes to close the curtain on "a sad political legacy from the old era" and open the bright new era of the Fifth Republic.
The Fifth Republic has not yet dawned, and General Chun is not yet a popularly elected president. But he has set the stage for his Feb. 2 state to Washington with bold celerity.
First came the announcement of the visit itself, which gave the new Reagan administration's accolade to General Chun and thereby immeasurably strengthened the dour general's prestige at home and abroad.
Then, on Jan. 23, the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence on Kim Dae Jung and President Chun immediately ordered the State Council (Cabinet) to "study the question" of commuting the sentence. The Cabinet duly resolved, "from the standpoint of national reconciliation," to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment.
Internationally, this action makes it possible for the United States, Japan, and Western Europe to resume normal relations with South Korea. Mr. Kim's trial on charges of forming an antistate organization and conspring for insurrection was widely regarded as unfair.
At home, the commutation of Mr. Kim's death sentence promotes the cause of reconciliation and what President Chun calls "harmonization" in contrast to the violent confrontations of the past. It is perhaps a measure of the President's confidence that he went ahead with the action despite strong feelings within the Army officer corps that Mr. Kim should be executed.
Finally, the lifting of martial law as of midnight Jan. 24 restores the primacy of the civilian authorities. Of course the media will continue to be carefully watched, and a new press law helps civilian authorities to take over some of the watchdog functions hitherto exercised by the military.
South Korea today is back where it was before President Park was assassinated Oct. 26, 1979. The authoritarian Yushin Constitution of 1972 is being replaced by the slightly more democratic constitution passed by referendum last October. The President, whose powers remain extensive, will be limited to a single seven-year term (instead of to unlimited six-year terms), and the National Assembly will have somewhat more powers than previously.
But the President will continue to be elected indirectly, through a 5,000-man college of electors. The college will be elected Feb. 11, and will in turn choose the new president Feb. 25. President Chun, candidate of the Democratic Justice Party, is almost certain to be the first presid ent of the Fifth Republic.