"I am so pleased to see all these art-loving people regardless of their social position," said Korea's minister of culture and information, Lee Kwang Pyo, who was here for last night's opening of "5,000 Years of Korean Art" at the National Museum of Natural History.

He stood very erect in his tuxedo, holding a lit cigarette with forefinger and thumb on the butt like a tiny missile. This indeed appeared to be something of a triumph for him, for the people who put together this extensive exhibit and for their friends -- Korean and American -- who wandered through the reception last night tasting Korean food. Through the museum, intriguing strains of Korean music could be heard. f

And about politics? Lee chuckled. "Since the visit of President Chun Doo Hwan, every Korean regards political relations as in good shape."

And about human rights violations on the part of the Korean government?

"It has been considerably improved," said Lee. Then he said few stories have been written about such violations in Korea lately.

"Even though we have 25 resident correspondents," said Lee, smiling. "Should anything happen they are ready to write it," Lee chuckled heartily.

The current South Korean government has squelched student protests in the last 13 months with arrests and substantial police presence on campuses. In addition, some time after Chun seized power in a December 1979 military coup, the government undertook a massive "purification" drive in which thousands of dissidents and corrupt officials were rounded up and political parties were dissolved. However, Chun did release about 1,000 political prisoners in recent months, and he did change the death sentence of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung to life imprisonment.

"Do you see any problem?" said Korea's new ambassador to the United States, Lew Byong Hion, who has yet to present his credentials to President Ronald Reagan. "The number of [political prisoners] is decreasing. Come to see us in Korea and you will understand it is not as bad as you think."

Just then General Richard G. Stilwell, former commanding general of U.S. forces in Korea, came up to shake Lew's hand and interspersed a few words of Korean in his conversation. "We've been friends for 12 years," said Stilwell about Lew.

"We found the second North Korean tunnel under the DMZ," said Lew, beaming.

"That's correct," said Stilwell. "We blocked it up. But they're still digging.But the tunnels are hard to find."

Stilwell retired during the Carter administration. "Now I want to go back to work," he said. Stilwell spoted Jangnai Sohn and patted his shoulder, and introduced him to another guest. "Good soldier," said Stilwell.

"I'm a retired major general," said Sohn, who is now working in Washington as a minister for the Korean government. "A so-called political appointee," he explained with a grin.

The Korean display is the inaugural exhibit of the Thomas M. Evans Gallery at the museum. Both Evans, a New York philanthrophist, and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley were among the few hundred guests.