HOW President Chun Doo Hwan receives political rival Kim Dae Jung back into South Korea on Feb. 8, after Mr. Kim's sojourn in the United States since 1982, could have powerful implications for that country's political stability and its ambitions for economic and regional stature. House arrest, prison, or worse -- recalling the 1983 assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino at the Manila airport on Mr. Aquino's return from exile -- are among the options most readily mentioned.
The Reagan administration must make it absolutely clear that the minimum threshold standard for Kim's reception is a safe return and some measure of effective intercourse with the political front that has been developing in opposition to the authoritarian Chun regime.
The first argument for the United States in the matter is moral. A guarantee of human rights is basic to democratic government. Just as the Reagan administration has had to acknowledge the decided public repugnance felt in America over South Africa's apartheid and the Marcos regime's conduct in the Philippines, so would it have to respond to repressive treatment of Kim.
The political, military, and economic arguments follow from there. Even Seoul's planning and aspirations for the 1988 Olympics, already running afoul of Soviet and East-bloc objections, could be jeopardized. There could be a free-world boycott should the Chun government allow a crackdown on domestic turbulence. Such turbulence could be provoked by an unwise handling of Kim's return, interrupting Chun's promise to restore democratic rule at his retirement in 1988.
Kim Dae Jung has spent considerable energy during his United States exile lobbying his case with officials and opinion leaders. He does not return, however, with an outright American constituency for his personal success. It is the integrity of the process that most concerns Americans. It is up to the South Koreans ultimately to determine their own political succession.
The National Assembly elections scheduled for Feb. 12, four days after Kim's planned return, are expected to bring another victory for Chun's party. Kim says he has become a rallying point for the opposition. He points to the common opposition accord reached with his own arch rival Kim Young Sam. He talks of unifying the opposition parties after the election to work toward a succession to democratic rule after the military relinquishes control.
In the volatile world of South Korean politics, one cannot be naive about the difficulties of keeping such a peaceful transition on course. There is immense student unrest. The political opposition is in the throes of forming and reforming. And Kim Dae Jung's assertion that he remains at the center of the opposition demands its own burden of proof.
To many in the Reagan administration, South Korea's energetic economy looks like something of a golden egg. South Korea's economic coming of age was evident in this week's announcement that it would begin exporting cars to the United States. The administration wants to do more business with South Korea, which is becoming a giant among the bustling Pacific Basin nations. On the military side, President Reagan himself remains deeply committed to keeping US forces there. For these reasons, this administration may prefer to ease around the difficulty of Kim's return and its consequences.
South Korea's political development was interrupted in 1979 when Chun, then an Army general, seized power by coup after the assassination of President Park. Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam, and yet another Kim, Park's prime minister, Kim Jong Pil, were preparing to run for office when Chun took over, ostensibly to quell unrest.
A nation like South Korea, ambitious to prove that it has come of age economically, that wants to show off its modernity as host to the world for the Olympic Games, cannot succeed by repressing the development of its basic political practices and institutions.