Look at it from the point of view of our ambassador to South Korea, Richard L. (Dixie) Walker. Or is it Sen. Jesse Helms' ambassador to South Korea? Dixie Walker was one of a score of officials who, in a memorable act of diplomatic indiscretion, interrupted their representation of President Reagan last fall to call for reelection of his sometime political adversary, the senator from North Carolina.

But never mind. Here was former professor Dixie Walker, in Seoul, faced with the most important assignment of his ambassadorial career: to see to the safe and uneventful return of political exile Kim Dae Jung. Given the Korean government's evident fear and loathing of Mr. Kim, and Mr. Kim's popular standing and his escort of several dozen ornery American human-rights activists, it was bound to be a tough assignment. As it happened, moreover, Ambassador Walker blew it. Nobody got badly hurt, but there was a scuffle at the airport and Mr. Kim was taken out of circulation in a way that made Korea look ugly and the United States look foolish. No wonder Ambassador Walker lost his cool.

That, at any rate, is the most charitable explanation for his outburst against the Americans who escorted Mr. Kim home. He said they, or some of them, had "reneged" on the homecoming agreement and provoked the airport fracas. He did find room to say that the Koreans were at fault, too, but the overall effect was to remove the principal onus from the perpetrators of the violence and place it on a few Americans who were among its victims. There was no mention of his own contribution, whatever it was, to the collapse of the homecoming accord. All but lost in the shuffle was what good diplomacy would have kept at center stage: the future of Kim Dae Jung and democracy in an American client state with strong-man rule.

In recent days, an intriguing new theme has been heard coming quietly from top American officials. It is time, they say, for the United States to put behind its "Vietnam syndrome," its reluctance to take the hard cases -- time to become more vigorous in support of embattled democrats abroad. Surely, there is an implication here for American human rights policy. For to be plausible and persuasive in its call to greater risk-taking abroad in behalf of democracy, the administration must also show its willingness to face up to repressors like the Chun government. As the Korean case demonstrates, however, parts of the administration have their own reluctance. They are full of ardor for the liberation of countries that are in, or falling in, the Soviet orbit -- Nicaragua and Afghanistan. If the U.S. government means to ratchet up American support for strengthening the enterprise of freedom, however, the place to build the necessary momentum and credibility is precisely in the countries that are already in the American orbit. South Korea is Exhibit A. What does the administration plan to do to redeem its policy there?