A Korean government employe, assigned to Washington several years ago, brought his widowed father along with his family. They moved into a brand-new, four-bedroom suburban home, and for months the old man went quietly from room to room, separated by language from the neighbors and by freeways from the monuments to freedom.

One morning, coming downstairs for breakfast, he turned to his son and said, "This is a prison without walls."

"That is how it is to be cut off here," said his son afterward. "In Korea, the community is small and interlocked. You visit everybody on foot . . . a half-mile at most."

The Koreans, among this decade's heirs to disillusion, are the third-largest group of immigrants arriving in the United States, apparently far outpacing the old estimates of 30,000 a year. According to census figures, the United States has 355,000 Koreans, virtually all of whom have arrived since the Immigration Act of 1965; Korean newspapers in this country commonly place the current figure at 700,000.

Although they arrive in such numbers, the Koreans remain surprisingly aloof even from each other, developing only a limited circle of friends, according to community leaders and county staff involved with the Koreans.

"There are numerous studies that say the single greatest failing of the Korean communities in the United States is the lack of cohesiveness," commented a Korean government adviser.

But faced with the growing frustration that has sparked a new and almost theatrical violence among some of their young people -- culminating in the June 21 "West Side Story"-like rumble in Wheaton that left a 19-year-old Korean dead and a 17-year-old charged with murder -- some members of the Korean community are ready to try to crack the circle of silence, calling for countywide and even areawide meetings of church and youth leaders.

"We cannot blame the fight on anybody else," said Patti Chung Claggett, owner of a Rockville beauty salon. "This the community must face itself. What is going to happen if the parents don't take control? The world will become a madhouse for the future."

In fact, sources in the Rockville neighborhood where the victim lived say some parents looked the other way when their sons began to trifle with trouble. Several of the youths had come home with injuries on previous occasions. A Korean boy was stabbed during a scuffle in Rockville's Congressional Mall last year -- the most serious of several incidents at the shopping center, which fronts an apartment complex with a large Korean population.

"Perhaps if the parents had ever reported these injuries to the police, that boy would be alive today," one area resident said angrily.

Nobody knows how many Korean immigrants there are in the Washington area. Estimates range from 30,000 to 60,000. Although the lion's share is still in Northern Virginia, Montgomery County has seen a surge in Korean newcomers, especially around Rockville, Wheaton and Gaithersburg. County estimates put the Korean population at 10,000, but Korean journalists and government observers say they believe there may be twice that many.

The clannishness that encloses so many Korean immigrants is a carryover from traditional Korean village society, where one family group may dominate several others.

"Like most Asian societies, it is based on traditional Confucian values -- everything is returned to the family," said the Korean observer. "Beyond that, however, it becomes very competitive."

"It's a network of five, maybe 10 families" in each "clan," said Ileana Herrell, Montgomery County's chief of minority affairs.

Census is complicated by the fact that Koreans consider it rude to be asked whether one has achieved American citizenship or remains a Korean foreign national. "It is like asking a lady her age," said Kim Jong Bin, a reporter in the local bureau of the Seoul-based Joong-Ang Daily News. "It is just not done."

One reason may be that the question implies some betrayal of lingering nationalism. Conversely, in an immigrant society where length of residence is a class distinction, such inquiries can imply a challenge.

The answer may be subtler, however. "In America, if you do well and become a citizen, you are expected immediately to invite all your relatives to come over and live with you," Kim continued. A Korean immigrant who admits to holding American citizenship, but who has not opened his house to family connections, may feel he is guilty of failing in either his filial obligation or his economic duty.

Even more confusing is the pervasive reluctance among Koreans here to be identified or exposed in any way. They evince little interest in politics and routinely decline to be photographed. Families whose sons were involved in the rumble refused to be interviewed even by local Korean newspapers. Many Korean shopowners are hesitant to place Korean-language signs in their windows, citing repeated incidents of anti-Korean vandalism in the Washington area.

Mainstreaming has thus become the chief mark of the caste system. "I divide the Koreans into three groups," said Choon Young Chung, director of the Washington Korean Young Men's Christian Association. "First, there is what we call the 'ABCs' -- the American-born citizens. Second, the immigrants here over 10 years. Third, the recent immigrants.

"It is the recent immigrants that get into trouble," Chung said. "Like the fight -- those were all new immigrants. They feel inferiority about language, about school, about their parents making money. The ones who learn to speak English, whose families are doing well, they are not interested in making trouble."

Indeed, families of some of the youths involved in the rumble had been in the United States less than a year. Most of the statements given to police by the youths were written in Korean.

For the teen-age children of immigrants, abruptly set down in an incomprehensible culture, high school can be the flint that fires personal and familial tensions.

High school is traditionally the time when Korean men form their closest bonds. "High school ties are more or less permanent," said a Korean bureaucrat. The unquestioning loyalty among some youths can turn verbal battles into rumbles like the one last month.

"It was not a gang, it was just a group of friends," said the girlfriend of a man hospitalized after the fight, which was between youths from Silver Spring and Rockville. But the two "groups" had already run into one another; the rumble was the scheduled resolution of a week-old argument, according to police.

Ironically, quality public education, and the ultimate passage into a prestigious college, are the primary reasons many upper-class Korean professionals are willing to uproot their families and start over, often literally from scratch, in the United States.

"Education is everything," said Kim Jong Bin. "The pressure is immense."

"And it's not just a question of getting into college, it has to be an Ivy League college," Herrell elaborated. "It's a matter of honor." Korean students who cannot master English are held up to ridicule against the indisputable success of Asian students nationwide.

But those freedoms that mark the "Americanized" teen-ager run counter to the traditional Korean family values. Dating in high school is frowned upon: "There is an old saying that a man and woman shouldn't sit together if they are older than 7," said Philip Lee, former administrator of the Korean School of Washington, a Korean language Saturday school for second-generation immigrants.

Americanization also may mean abandoning the Korean language, an action often implicitly viewed by parents as rejection of their culture.

In Korea, where classes may last until dinner time, students are expected to go straight home. Here, where the proliferation of video parlors and public pools make hanging out a major pastime, some Koreans are torn between fitting in and sitting it out.

In any case, home is likely to be empty. "Both parents have to work," said Kim, voicing a concern echoed repeatedly by Korean residents. "They can't spend any time with the kids; they come home tired."

"It's worse than American latchkey kids," said the bureaucrat. "At least they speak the language."

And, in a further twist, the failure of Korean parents to find the kind of professional positions most held before leaving Korea leads some teen-agers to become envious of more successful families. Americanization also means living in the material whirl.

More and more Korean parents, hoping to bridge the widening culture gap, are looking to "blend" Korean and American standards, as Lee puts it. The Korean School of Washington is one of about 40 weekend institutions in the Washington-Baltimore area that try to instill language, folklore and cultural skills into the "ABCs" and more Americanized adolescents.

Korean language radio and cable television programs are available here, including a version of music video, suggesting that Korean culture can be as hip as American.

There are nearly 100 Korean congregations in the Washington area (nearly all Protestant), 19 of them in Montgomery County. But the churches, which play a major moderating social role in Korea, seem to have less influence here. Several longtime Korean residents interviewed about the fatal fight said they assumed that the presence of the churches was a factor in minimizing the number of incidents of violence. However, parents of some of the youths involved in the June 21 struggle have told friends their sons claimed to be playing interchurch baseball that night -- a plausible excuse for carrying the baseball bats used, among other weapons, in the rumble.

Last week, representatives of several major Rockville churches, some Montgomery County business owners and parents tentatively agreed to meet to formulate plans to stem the flow of frustration. Choon Young Chung said he will expand his Korean YMCA into Maryland this fall. The Montgomery County KYMCA will be "on the border between Rockville and Silver Spring," he said, thinking back to the fatal scuffle. "We must do something for those boys."

These efforts may indeed help some second-generation immigrants to balance the pressures of two cultures: Philip Lee's 12-year-old daughter, who recently spent a month in Korea, was so pleased to be accepted by her relatives that she thanked Lee for pushing her to attend weekend classes.

"But we cannot do it all," Lee warned. "They have to learn to live here, to blend into the [English-speaking] community. They have to find the balance, these children . . . and their parents."