Columnist Nick Thimmesch is not attending an international conference of journalists in South Korea, sponsored by News World Communications Inc. Thimmesch says he declined an invitation to attend the conference many weeks ago, both orally and in writing. The Post regrets the error.

Junket.

It is a tawdry little word, suggestive of the trash heap and derived from an English custard pudding that was once, evidently, a favorite food on outings and feastings. It is also a word with an old and honored place in the vocabulary of journalists writing about shady public officials.

A thornier question is whether the word -- and the tone of immorality it conveys -- should be applied to journalists and their travels, and if so, when. When is a junket a junket, and when is it -- to use the loftier expression -- an "informational visit"?

One occasion for this controversy is the latest brouhaha at Harper's magazine, but the Harper's experience has only set off a debate; it has hardly set a pattern. Even as Harper's board chairman Donald Petrie was vowing "not to solicit or accept contributions or subsidies from interested parties on matters on which the magazine plans to write" and "not to publish articles about situations where contributions or subsidies have already been received from an interested party or parties," two vast reportorial migrations were under way.

One gang of journalists (including William Maynes of Foreign Policy, James Chace of Foreign Affairs, Robert Hunter of The Washington Quarterly and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Republic) was off to Western Europe to inspect allied military exercises at the invitation of NATO, while another (including William Rusher of The National Review, James Whelan of The Washington Times, Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media, Nick Thimmesch of the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Shoemaker, formerly of ABC) was off to South Korea to discuss "Social Issues and Values in the Media" under the sponsorship of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications, Inc.

The Harper's edict was adopted in response to (and over the criticisms of) Harper's editor Michael Kinsley, who spent a week in Israel and Lebanon last month at Israeli expense, only to receive, on his return, a severe tongue-lashing and a brief suspension from chairman Petrie. Kinsley says he will try to live with the new policy -- "I was only trying to save Harper's some money" -- but calls it "conceptually muddled" and "unenforceable." Harper's is owned by a nonprofit foundation, and Kinsley has written (in a nine-page memo to his employers) that "under the Petrie Doctrine, we should be foreclosed from writing about energy issues because we have accepted $1 1/2 million from ARCO (or, alternatively, we should have refused the ARCO money if we plan ever to write about energy)."

Petrie's reply is that "you don't do a study on Atlantic Richfield in the same quarter that you have received money from them," but a few years later "sure we could." Magazines owned by nonprofit bodies have a special sensitivity to conflict-of-interest questions, he says, but the "rule of reason should prevail. It's a question of how long, how much and to what degree."

Clearly, economics as well as principle are involved here. While the more prosperous publications tend to pay their own way, many of their less well-heeled brethren apply the "rule of reason" more loosely -- and make no apologies for it. "The resources of small-circulation magazines do not permit cavalier attitudes toward expenses," declares The National Review's sources of small-circulation magazines do not permit cavalier attitudes toward expenses," declares The National Review's William F. Buckley Jr. "I edit a magazine that would collapse at the mere thought of forking out $2,000 to pay the expenses of a single story." (Kinsley's trip was said to have cost in the neighborhood of $2,000, although when Petrie insisted on repaying that sum to the Israeli consulate in New York, the consulate refused his check on the grounds that "the expenses of the trip were much less.")

The New Republic's Hertzberg echoes the Buckley sentiment in defending his West German travels, which, he points out, included talks with leaders of the new anti-nuclear Green party and other opposition figures. He calls it "a very useful trip," but says journalists ought to be wary of joining a government-subsidized elite. He would make "no blanket defense" of press junkets, he says. "I'd probably take a junket from the Chinese but not the Russians, and I'd take one from the Venezuelans but not the Argentinians, and I'd take one from the Israelis but not the Libyans. It's all a matter of opinion, and this is a journal of opinion."

"If you have honest people going, they will not be persuaded by the purchase of an airplane ticket for them," says Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, who has accused American journalists of kowtowing to the Palestine Liberation Organization in writing about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. "I am much more suspicious of a situation where journalists are dependent for their safety and all of their information on a party to a political dispute," says Peretz, "than where one party buys them bread and board."

But the author of "Playing It Straight," a guide to journalistic ethics published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says individual integrity is not a sufficient answer. The sponsor "has an expectation of achieving a changed point of view," says John L. Holteng, who teaches journalism at Stanford University. "Maybe the individual journalist accepting the junket has a strong enough ethical sense that the expectation is never fulfilled, but the simple fact that that expectation is there puts the journalist in an uncomfortable position in my opinion. The appearance of having tilted coverage is almost as bad, really, as the fact of it."

The Columbia Journalism Review chastised one recent group of jaunting journalists -- 20 newspaper editors and publishers who took an all-expenses-paid vacation to Taiwan in the summer of 1979 and wrote so glowingly of their travels that the Chinese Coordination Council for North American Affairs felt moved to compile a handsome booklet of reprints. "Their reports," the booklet declared, "all reflect the richness of the traditional Chinese culture, the resourcefulness and hard work of the people and the dedication of the government."

"It's a source of constant discussion here," says Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, which is drafting a new code on junkets and related concerns. "We start with the rule that nobody here is allowed to accept any money from any government or private institution on the condition that they write an article for the magazine. Then we have a presumption that editorial personnel at The Nation should not accept travel arrangements, hospitality or stipends from any governmental agency or private institution with an interest in influencing the editorial content of the magazine."

But then, Navasky continues, come the "difficult questions" and the "borderline situations." For example, a government-arranged trip to a war zone where travel is otherwise impossible. Or a paid invitation to a conference "that at least ostensibly is not intended to influence the editorial policy of the magazine." Or, most common of all, a trip or conference involving a free-lance writer, who later submits an article to The Nation. "In such circumstances, we make case-by-case decisions," says Navasky. "The most important thing about that is that if any article or editorial is published in the magazine that can be attributed however remotely to subsidized travel, we disclose that in the same issue of the magazine." Henceforth, Navasky says, The Nation will also maintain a log of subsidized travel to be made available on demand to inquisitive subscribers.

Arab as well as Israeli organizations have long been trying to lure foreign journalists to the Mideast. Nachman Shai, press counselor of the Israeli Embassy, calls it "investing for the future. To get people to know, that's my attitude," says Shai. "That's what I think drove the Israeli journalists' association to that project . . . There is no more corruption in those invitations than in the invitations of Israeli journalists to visit the United States." Shai himself spent a year in the United States on a World Press Institute fellowship, "learning about America," he says.

And every year, the United States Information Agency, perhaps the biggest single sponsor of such visits, pays for 100 to 150 foreign journalists to come to the United States. But some American journalists tend to take a guarded view of the morality of their foreign colleagues. "I wouldn't give a dime for the ethics of 99 percent of those people," says Mel Mentcher, professor of journalism at Columbia.

On the other hand, Mentcher says, journalistic junkets were a widespread and uncontroversial practice in this country until the last decade, when "people began to find them unethical." There is "a patina of corruption" about the practice, but "I don't think it's that big an issue," he says. "How many papers in this country pay full expenses for their own sportswriters? And are they corrupted by the St. Louis Cardinals? . . . The real corruption in journalism is far deeper."

Most major American newspapers and newsmagazines now have strongly worded policies against accepting free travel or related favors, but the lines can be very hazily drawn. On his Mideast trip, Kinsley notes, representatives of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer "paid (or rather, billed their employers) for air fare (at a special rate of $450 round-trip), hotels and meals. No one tried to pay for the bus that drove us around for a week, the driver, our government escorts, or the fruit drinks we were served at various meetings . . ."

And if newspapers in fact have stricter policies than magazines, that is the way it should be, according to Kinsley. "Magazines are not supposed to be objective or balanced," he says. "Nor are they supposed to publish only the writings of unengaged observers."

By law, the White House is required to charge the press a pro-rated share of the expenses when reporters travel with the president. But beginning with President Nixon's journeys to San Clemente and Key Biscayne, it has been a widespread practice for journalists' spouses and children to buy up extra plane seats at bargain rates. As Eleanor Randolph of the Los Angeles Times wrote in The Washington Monthly, "the wine on the White House press plane is very good" and "foreign trips are another thing altogether." On one trip to Iran, Randolph wrote, the shah held a special New Year's Eve dinner for the White House press corps, at which, "piled on a long table were lamb, roast beef, fish, shrimp, chicken, turkey, pork, and, of course, caviar. There were also salads and some unusual-looking vegetables. There were towering cakes and puddings, fancy sauces, bowls of dark chocolate syrup and marshmallow cream. There was booze and wine and champagne, and someone had provided silly hats."

Most White House correspondents are "completely righteous" about their own perquisites but "would scorn what Kinsley did," says Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly. "I would say there is within the profession vast hypocrisy about this."