The State Department's annual human rights report, whose publication was postponed by White House request in order not to embarass South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan during his visit here last week, has charged Chun's military regime with repressive "law-and-order" policies depriving Koreans of most "basic political freedoms and rights."
The indictment of Chun's government is part of a worldwide survey that has similarly harsh things to say about repression in several other countries -- among them El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Bolivia and South Africa -- where the Reagan administration is expected to seek friendlier relations with the ruling authorities.
In regard to El Salvador, for example, the report says that about 9,000 people died during 1980 as the result of terrorism not only from the extreme left, which the administration regards as the principal danger there, but also from the extreme right, which has covert support from the government security forces.
The rights abuses detailed in the report, which is being made public today, are not a new story. But their publication as part of an official report by the State Department to Congress comes at a potentially sensitive time for the Reagan administration, which has made no secret of its intention to downgrade substantially the application of human rights considerations to U.S. policy decisions.
Unlike President Carter, who used the publicity attendant on the annual report to try to force repressive regimes to make reforms, Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., have sketched out a policy of not interfering in the internal situations of countries with authoritarian governments disposed to be friendly toward the United States.
That was underscored at a Feb. 2 White House ceremony where Reagan, with Chun at his side, heaped praise on the Korean leader and announced strong support for his government without any qualification based on its human rights record.
Similarly, Haig, stressing his belief that the leftists in El Salvador are the major threat to U.S. interests in Central America, has said that, if necessary, the United States is likely to increase its military aid to that government.
Although the military assistance was instituted by the Carter administration, it had been to publicly enunciated assurances that Washington would prod Salvadoran authorities to solve the murder of four American woman missionaries believed to have been killed by rightists.
Last week, however, the new administration appeared to drop this condition when Haig's spokesman, William Dyess, refused to answer questions about the murder investigation and said that, in the furture, it would be pursued through "private diplomatic channels."
These positions seemed to signal that the Reagan administration unofficially has disowned the 1980 human rights reports, which were prepared under the supervision of Carter's activist assistant secretary of state of human rights, Patt Derian, and will not use them in policy decisions.
However, the reports, which represent the factual reporting and analysis of the department's geographic bureaus and its embassies covering 153 nations, are widely regarded as an accurate yardstick of the rights situations in the countries covered. In addition, they have their basis not in an executive branch decision but in a legislative mandate from Congress decreeing that the State Department must prepare them annually.
As a result, unless Reagan seeks to have Congress change the legislation or elects to risk a fight with Capitol Hill by ignoring the law, the reports seem likely to keep cropping up every year as a reminder of the policy that the new administration wants to push into the background.
Despite the Reagan administration's feeling that the Carter policy was counterproductive, it retains strong support within Congress and a large number of church and other interest groups. These forces have made no secret of their belief that human rights should remain a priority consideration of U.S. foreign policy, and they are girding for an all-out effort to block congressional confirmation of Reagan's choice as Derian's successor, Ernest W. Lefever, an outspoken critic of the Carter approach.
Besides its criticism of rightist regimes that the Reagan administration wants to cultivate, the report cites widespread violations by authoritarian communist regimes, particularly the Soviet Union. Commenting on the situation there, the report says:
"In addition to their continuing violation of basic human and national rights in Afghanistan, Soviet authorities have also stepped up repression at home in a crackdown on human rights activists as severe as any since the beginning of the human rights movement over a decade ago."
In regard to Israel, another country that has been at the center of human rights controversies, the report, as in past years, lauds the high degree of democracy and respect for individual rights within Israel proper. But it notes a "worsening trend" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where tensions increased as the result of the killing of a number of Jewish settlers, the maiming of two Arab mayors and the wounding of Arab student demonstrators.
Iran was not mentioned in the report because the American hostages were still in custody at the time of its preparation, and U.S. officials were fearful of complicating the negotiations for their release.
In reference to the broad global picture, the report found essentially the same situation as in previous years: a high respect for human rights uniformly throughout Western Europe and a mixed bag of improvements and regressions in different parts of the Third World.
The report concluded: "1980 saw little overall change in the status of political and civil freedoms in the world."