President Carter challenged South Korea Saturday night to match the spectacular economic progress it has made over the last decade with equal strides in the areas of political and human rights.
Offering a toast at a state dinner given by South Korean President Park Chung Hee, Carter pointedly raised the sensitive subject of human rights in a country that has been widely accused of repressive measures.
There is a growing consensus within the international community about the fundamental value of human rights, individual rights, individual dignity, political freedom, freedom of the press and the rule of law," the president said. "The free expression of ideas stimulates innovation and creativity. The right to participate in the political process helps to unite a nation in pursuit of common goals.
"There is abundant evidence in Korea of the dramatic economic progress a capable and energetic people can achieve by working together," he continued. "I believe that this achievement can be matched by similar progress through the realization of basic human aspirations in political and human rights."
Carter's statement may have jolted the South Korean government, which prior to the president's visit had said it expected him to make only a general statement on human rights policy, devoid of direct references to South Korea.
This morning Carter underscored his concern about human rights by meeting with 12 of the country's religious leaders, including several who have spoken out in opposition to Park's policies. But Carter did not meet with prominent dissident Kim Dae Jung, who almost defeated Park in the 1970 presidential election. Administration officials had said Carter would not meet with Kim since Kim is no longer the leader of the opposition party.
South Korean dissidents have charged that Carter's visit provoked new repressive measures by the Park government, including the house arrest of prominent dissidents, such as Kim.
South Korea has always ranked high on the Carter administration's list of human rights violators. But the country is also a U.S ally in the Far East, the scene of bloody fighting by American toops almost three decades ago, and is still tied closely to the United States by defense commitments and the continuing presence of U.S. troops here.
The president's handling of the delicate human rights question was thus of intense interest, particularly among the political and religious critics of the Park government, who had hoped for a pointed rebuke by Carter of the South Korean government's human rights record.
Religious dissidents now say South Korean prisons hold about 340 political prisoners, most of whom were arrested for violating an emergency decree that prohibits any criticism of the government outside the National Assembly.
Many others are under house arrest with guards stationed at the gates and doors of their residences. The Korean National Council of Churches estimated this week that at least 63 persons have been placed under house arrest in the past two weeks and some of them say that the restrictions were imposed to prevent them from expressing dissent during the Carter visit.
Carter raised the subject of human rights when he met for more than two hours with Park. The only concrete result announced after the session - the only meeting planned between the two leaders during the vist - was a commitment by South Korea to provide $5 million in aid for the resettlement of Indochinese refugees.
The president has been stressing the plight of the refugees throughout his week-long trip to the Far East. In Tokyo Thursday, Carter and the leaders of six other industrialiized democracies pledged to "significantly increase" the number of refugees they will resettle and the funds they contribute to the international resettlement effort.
The president followed that commitment by immediately announcing he was doubling the quota of Indochinese refugees accepted by the United States, from 7,000 a month to 14,000 a month.
Besides the human rights issue and the efforts to revive reunification negotiations between North Korea and South Korea, the other main topic of the Carter-Park talks was the president's announced intention to withdraw U.S. ground combat troops from the Korean penisula.
In one of his first major foreign policy decisions, Carter announced the withdrawal plan in the spring of 1977, and the first group of 3,400 troops was withdrawn in 1978. Since then, however, the White House has, in effect, frozen the withdrawal plan because of recent intelligence reports of a buildup of North Korean troops.
There is widespread opposition in the administration to continuing the withdrawal plan, although the president remains personally committed to it. Administration officials said they do not expect Carter to announce any decision on the withdrawal plan while he is here, but to wait until he returns to Washington and consults with Congress.
The speculation is that the president, citing the North Korean build-up, will announce that he remains committed to the withdrawal plan but will continue to hold up its implementation because of the North Korean military threat.
In his scant public remarks during the visit, Carter has stressed the comtinuing American military commitment to South Korea.
"The United States has been, is and will remain a Pacific power," the president said in his toast at the state dinner.
"Everyone must know Koreans and Americans will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent aggression on this peninsula and to preserve the peace," he added. "our milltary commitment to Korea's security is unshakable, strong and enduring."
In an unusual gesture following his toast, the president presented the Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., commander of the combined U.S. and South Korean forces here. CAPTION: Picture 1, President Carter is surrounded by members of 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey before his departure for talks in the South Korean capital Saturday. UPI; Picture 2, President Carter and South Korea's President Park exchange toasts at state dinner in Seoul Saturday night. AP