SEOUL -- The good news from South Korea is that strong consumer demand has led to store shelves being emptied of foreign products ranging from Gucci handbags to Westinghouse refrigerators. The bad news is that it is not the consumers who are snapping up these imported goods.

Rather, South Korea's leading department stores are withdrawing these expensive imports from their shelves and are closing down such brand-name boutiques as Bally and Burberry's. It is part of an anti-import mood sweeping through the country. Suddenly, consumers are having a harder time finding popular foreign products like golf clubs, Ford Sable cars and even maraschino cherries.

"These things should not happen in a democratic, capitalist country," said a boutique owner whose business was shut down by the department store that had leased it to her.

At the Hyundai Department store, whose parent company is one of South Korea's largest exporters of cars, computers and electronics, more than a half dozen West European and American boutiques were shuttered in the past two weeks, and about one-third of the store's foreign goods were put on a company blacklist. The Lotte department store, whose parent company is also a key exporter, reportedly is removing not only brand-name boutiques but also foreign wines and fruits.

"The basic policy is to cooperate with social opinion, which criticizes over-consumption," said a Hyundai official. "So we are eliminating high-priced imported goods."

The anti-import trend stems from a slowdown in South Korea's economic growth and a reversal of its balance of payments, which is in deficit for the first quarter of 1990 after four years of massive surpluses.

The government and media partly blame the troubles on rising imports of consumer goods -- although such products account for only about 5 percent of total imports, which are mainly raw materials and capital goods, according to a statistical analysis by the American Chamber of Commerce.

"Everybody knows that this kind of importing is not a healthy situation," insisted Chang Il Hyung, director of the U.S. division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. "We are very concerned about the unreasonable consumption patterns of our people... . However, we don't regulate import gains." He said the department stores are acting on their own and responding to popular opinion.

American and European business executives and trade officials see things differently.

Whether the issue will come up when South Korean President Roh Tae Woo meets with President Bush in Washington on Wednesday remains unclear, but Western businessmen contend that the government is the invisible hand behind the anti-import actions. In an insular country once known as the Hermit Kingdom and prone to anti-foreign impulses, just a wink or a nod from the government is enough to ignite the press, inflame public opinion and send domestic firms scurrying for cover, diplomats and business officials contend.

"They do a lot of this stuff through phone calls that don't leave any tracks," said an official at the American Chamber of Commerce.

"If the foreigners can be made to pay as the scapegoats, so much the better," remarked a diplomat.

Ford Motor Co. may be an example of the mysterious problems that foreign "luxury" goods are encountering. Thanks to lowered tariffs, Ford last year began exporting Sable cars to South Korea. It seemed popular among Korean businessmen. Initial sales were brisk but began dropping early this year, falling to 189 units in April from 280 in January. The decline is continuing, industry sources say.

Newspapers have reported that Kia Motors, the local distributor of the Sable, has scaled down its imports and halted its promotional campaign for the sedan. The newspapers say the moves are voluntary, aimed at showing Kia's "backing of the government's austerity campaign." Industry and diplomatic sources say Kia acted reluctantly under government pressure.

"They {government officials} were tolerant when only six Sables were sold but not when it's several hundred," said a Western diplomat. "Koreans no longer feel bound morally to the {trade} deals they made. They say they have fallen on hard times."

Consumption in general has increased significantly in the past year or two, rising 9.8 percent in 1989. Imports of consumer goods jumped by nearly 50 percent, although the level remains small. Last year's rise in consumption came as the country's exports began sagging and the economy's double-digit growth slowed to 6.7 percent. The result is that South Korea's trade surplus dropped by more than half in 1989 and is trending toward a deficit for this year.

The trend is underscored in U.S.-South Korean trade figures, which show that the first quarter U.S. deficit dropped to $744 million this year from $1.6 billion in the same period of last year due to a combination of increasing U.S. exports and falling imports.

The government says Koreans need to play less and work more. Chang of the Ministry of Trade and Industry pointed out that the anti-import actions are part of a larger anti-consumption drive that is not aimed solely at foreign firms. A few months ago, the government ordered all bars, discos and other entertainment spots that cater to Koreans to close at midnight. Senior government officials have even been instructed to reduce the amount of time they spend playing golf, according to local newspapers.

Nonetheless, foreign business executives and diplomats dismiss arguments that the anti-consumption campaign is applied even-handedly.

"If they want to hit luxurious items, why don't they also hit Korean companies?" a senior West European diplomat said. "In {the Hyundai} department store, there are some very expensive Korean boutiques that sell dresses that are twice as expensive as Gucci."

Still, American and West European officials are puzzled because they believe the South Koreans are unwisely inviting retaliation that will cost much more than any savings they can achieve from reducing luxury imports. They note that the country's economic future depends on exports, which means the Koreans would be the losers if protectionism replaces cooperation in trade relations.

"It's going to get people upset and it's going to invariably attract attention in Washington," said the Western diplomat.