Secretary of State George P. Shultz said yesterday that a misunderstanding led to a scuffle between police and exiled South Korean dissident leader Kim Dae Jung's party when he arrived at the Seoul airport last week, but administration officials refused to say whether they agree with the U.S. ambassador's assertion that American rights activists accompanying Kim may have provoked the incident.

"Things didn't go according to the agreements that we thought we had worked out for [Kim's] arrival," Shultz said on NBC's "Today" show. "The traveling party didn't go as was described, and the Korean government didn't react the way we thought they might have, so there was some misunderstanding, and it led to this scuffle."

However, Shultz sidestepped the issue of whether he agrees with Ambassador Richard L. Walker's comments to reporters Sunday. Walker condemned the Korean use of force but also said the action of prominent Americans in linking arms with Kim "appeared to be a purposeful provocation" against police. The Americans who traveled with Kim have rejected the charge as "absolutely false."

The administration was embarrassed badly by the incident in which the Americans, including two members of Congress, said they were beaten, kicked and knocked down. But Shultz's comments also made clear that the administration, which regards South Korea as an important ally, does not intend to abandon its policy of trying to bring about an easing of Korean political repression through quiet diplomacy.

In response to questions about the controversy, U.S. officials sought to follow Shultz's lead in arguing that the airport scuffle was "not really the main point" in U.S. relations with the military government of President Chun Doo Hwan. "The main point is whether or not in Korea progress is being made toward a more open society, a more democratic society, and I think there is some progress, although they are a long way from where we'd like to see them," Shultz said.

The South Korean ambassador here, Byong Hion Lew, conferred yesterday with Michael H. Armacost, undersecretary of state for political affairs. Department sources said Armacost protested the violence, called for a "realistic investigation" by Korean authorities and told Lew that the continued restrictions on Kim were providing ammunition to rights advocates calling for President Reagan to postpone Chun's planned visit here in April.

State Department spokesman Ed Djerejian said: "We don't want to comment further until we receive the results of the Korean government's investigation into the incident."

Asked whether Walker was speaking for the U.S. government when he made his charges, Djerejian replied, "Ambassador Walker is the president's representative in Korea. He obviously is the top-level American official in Korea. I am just not going to be drawn into commenting on why he might have said something."

White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that Reagan agrees with Walker that the South Korean government and the American group with Kim "did not live up to their agreement" about arrangements for Kim's return. Speakes also would not say directly whether the administration believes the Americans behaved in a provocative manner, but he added, "The views of the president and the ambassador are identical."

Djerejian, echoing Shultz's comments, said: "Let me say that in our view we need to look to the future in Korea. Lost in the news of the unfortunate incident at the airport is the fact that Mr. Kim was not put back in jail."

Djerejian confirmed that Kim has not been allowed to leave his home since his arrival in Seoul. He also acknowledged that Kim has been prohibited from voting in the parliamentary elections being held in South Korea today and said that clerics have been barred from entering Kim's home to conduct religious services.

About 30 Korean-Americans met former assistant secretary of state Patt Derian and former ambassador Robert White at National Airport last night on their return from South Korea. The demonstrators carried signs with pictures of Kim, and said the U.S. delegation that went to Korea had done a good job.