President Chun Doo Hawn, South Korea's new strongman, trying to show the West a less repressive face, did not rule out to us the possibility he might commute the death sentence against dissident Kim Dae Jung amid indications that government lawyers are about to study his options.

In his first interview since moving two weeks earlier from behind-the-throne power to the presidential throne itself -- and shortly before Kim was sentenced to death -- Chun stressed that Kim was not a political prisoner but was on trial for his life on strictly criminal charges. But while asserting that this was "a matter for the courts and not the responsibility of the president to mete out justice," Chun did not close the door to clemency.

That typified the restrained tone by the 49-year-old career army officer who seized power last December during the turbulence following President Park Chung Hee's assassination. In a 90-minute interview at the Blue House, Chun welcomed President Carter's call for "complete democracy" here, proposed a quick end to martial law and predicted a more democratic South Korea than Park's 18-year regime.

But Chun also emphasized the danger of North Korean agression, making this peninsula a potential world flash point and keeping 39,000 U.S. troops here. If last May's riots in the town of Kwangju, he said, "had been allowed to spread to two other cities," North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung would have sent down 100,000 infiltrators. "That is why social unrest, disorder and riots cannot be tolerated," Chun added.

On balance, Chun hardly seemed the barracks-roon primitive portrayed in the international press. While chain-smoking throughout the interview, he was relaxed and self-assured. His sophistication belied the fact that scarcely two years ago he was an unknown infantry division commander.

The contrast between the smiling, athletic-looking Chun and the austere, frail Park is more than physical. While Park told us in the same room five years ago that communist North Korea's military menace precluded relaxation of security here, Chun held out considerably more hope even though his regime so far is measurably harsher than Park's final years. Chun called the United States his country's "great benefactor" and studiously avoided provocative language about the United States often used by Park.

That was true of his cautious language in responding to Western criticism of the trial of former presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung, today the most serious dispute between Washington and Seoul. "I am a little concerned about the tendency in the United States and Japan to link that case to me," he said.

But Chun did not lash out at U.S. interference. He simply said he had not yet considered a presidential pardon, while not commenting on the prospect. nWe received the impression that his lawyers will soon research the presidential powers for clemency, though commutation of a death sentence is opposed by Chun's key advisers.

As for Carter's recent call for "complete democracy" in South Korea, Chun told us: "I think it is very good that he should say that. I certainly do not resent it at all. Democracy has to be complete. Incomplete democracy is undesirable under any circumstances." But quickly added that "each country has its own historical, cultural and geopolitical circumstances." "

Those "circumstances" include linking the threat from the north to preventing disorder in the south, but Chun said, "Martial law ought to be lifted at the earliest practical moment." He called it "advisable to observe the situation for a few months. But my feelings is that [martial law] will not last a long time."

"Those in the United States who call the policies here opressive," he said, "obviously are talking about what happened in the past. I am not in a position to talk about that, because I was not politically responsible." Having thus disclaimed responsibility for the Park era, Chun said that the new constitution will be more like the American Constitution than Park's in providing contested presidential elections and a limited presidency (one seven-year term).

Chun saw no North Korean interest in serious negotiations that would diminish tensions: "Where you and I sit at this very moment is within the effective field artillery range of North Korean forces, and if they decide to pull the trigger, the shells would explode right in their midst. This is that a great, rich and secure country like the United States finds it difficult to imagine."

It is also something that has required a generation of Americans and Koreans to overlook what they perceive as the other's shortcomings in the interest of each nation's security. The Kim Dae Jung case will drag on for months with the worst yet to come. But Chun Doo Hwan clearly wants some mutual overlooking as South Korea pursues perhaps its last chance for stability, a quest whose life and death implications transcend this small nation.