Now is the time for symbols and signals. President Reagan is setting the tone for a new foreign policy by making his first official visitors the new leaders of Jamaica and South Korea.
Through his invitation to Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica, who will see him at the White House Jan. 28, Mr. Reagan is saying, in effect, "We like what you're doing in support of free enterprise and what you're offering as an alternative to Cuba."
Through his invitation to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, a military man running an authoritatian regime, the President is making clear that the new administration places great stresss on military defense and does not intend to dramatize human rights concerns to the degree that the Carter administration did.
One of the first acts of the Reagan administration was to announce that President Chun was being invited to Washington. The invitation went out on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. The South Korean leader will be Reagan's guest at the White House Feb. 2.
Chun made things easier for Reagan shortly after Inauguration Day by first commuting to life imprisonment the death sentence imposed last fall on dissident political leader Kim Dae Jung, and second by lifting martial law. Without the decision to reduce Mr. Kim's sentence, it is doubtful that Chun would have got his invitation to the White House. Prior to the inauguration, Reagan aides had warned Chun that the new President would look with disfavor on the execution of Kim Dae Jung.
But Reagan disapproval of human rights abuses in nations that are strategically located and friendly to the United States is likely to be registered more quietly than was the case with the Carter administration.
As one State Department official put it: "There was a tendency for the Carter Administration to make pronouncements by spokesmen from the podium, deploring this or that, particularly when it came to dealing with governments friendly to the US. . . . This was often counterproductive. . . . If you confront a government publicly, it often makes it more difficult for them to respond."
But when a friendly government does things that the US likes, the new administration is clearly not going to hide its delight. The administration's foreign policy experts were unhappy with Jamaica's left-leaning an now-ousted Prime Minister Michael Manley and his friendliness toward Cuba. They are delighted with Manley's successor, Mr. Seaga, who won a major election victory last October.
Seaga has pleased administration officials with his plans to strengthen the private sector of the economy in Jamaica and with his insistence that Jamaica wants to "earn its way" out of debt and not just depend on foreign aid.
Also pleasing to the administration is the drop in the number of Cubans working in Jamaica. State Department officials estimate that Cuba reduced its presence shortly before the October election from as many as 500 officials, doctors, construction workers, dependents, and others to fewer than 200.
In a report on Jamaica, the conservative Heritage Foundation has urged Reagan to provide financial aid to rebuild the private sector of the Jamaican economy, particularly the depressed manufacturing and agricultural industries. The report argues that Jamaica has the potential to become "an attractive alternative to the Cuban centrally planned economy model" in the Caribbean.
South Korea, too, has been having economic problems, which, while not as severe as those of Jamaica, could benefit from the confidence- building boost in morale that Chun's visit to the White House is likely to provide. South Korea's main burden has been "stagflation" -- a lack of economic growth combined with sharp inflation.
"The invitation to Chun shows the confidence of the US government in this administration," said Don Ranard, director of the Center for International Policy and a critic of the Chun regime who considers the visit untimely. Mr. Ranard was the State Department's director for Korean affairs from 1970 to 1974.
"It's a signal to US businessmen who were wondering which way to go," said Ranard. "It's a real coup for the South Korean military and what they believe in."