Almost a week after the U.S. Embassy here protested the roughing up of a group of American human rights activists by police at Seoul's airport, the South Korean government is still working on its official response.

But despite a desire by the government to dispel the police-state image conveyed to the world by television footage of the incident, it is unlikely that Seoul will apologize or be conciliatory because the actions of Kim's American escorts touched a sensitive nationalist nerve. The Americans arrived in Seoul with dissident leader Kim Dae Jung to act as citizen bodyguards. To the government, that was an insult to the police, a suggestion that they were either incompetent or plotting his murder.

Emotions were also raised by the government's intense hatred for Kim. Kim was convicted of sedition and sentenced to death in 1980, but the sentence was later commuted.

The government is maintaining a hard line despite concern that the incident might cloud a visit President Chun Doo Hwan is scheduled to make to the White House in April. U.S. Embassy officials here say, however, that the relationship with South Korea is too important to be sidetracked by an incident of this sort.

There was no love for this particular set of Americans, either. They are mostly Democrats, many of them affiliated with Carter administration human rights policies that had stung Seoul in the 1970s.

In meetings with U.S. diplomats, South Korean officials attacked the group in harsh terms.

"We are not your colony," a senior government official told U.S. Ambassador Richard Walker, according to an embassy official.

The Americans, pointing to the 1983 assassination of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. on his return from exile, said the purpose of their trip to Seoul was to draw world attention to Kim and protect him.

They were led by Reps. Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio) and Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.), Patt Derian, assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Carter administration, and former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White.

They have since left Seoul. Kim is under house arrest.

The Americans say they were assaulted by plainclothed police without warning after they and Kim arrived on a flight from Tokyo at about noon last Friday.

By Seoul's account, a minimum of force was used, and then, only because the Americans ignored police instructions to leave Kim and instead linked arms with him.

South Korean officials ridicule the suggestion that the government posed a threat to Kim's life.

In meetings with U.S. diplomats, South Korean officials charged that the actions of the Americans constituted intervention in National Assembly elections that were to be held four days later.

One Korean official lectured an American diplomat on Vietnam, saying the United States suffered defeat there largely because it did not accord due respect to the country's people.

If South Korea buckled under, North Korea's allegations that Seoul is a U.S. puppet would be proved true, South Korean officials told the Americans.

"The moment Kim Dae Jung set foot on Korean soil, it was a Korean problem," one Seoul official was quoted as saying.

Many U.S. officials say the South Korean government bungled the incident from the start and created an international sensation.

"It's a perfect example of Korean national pride getting out of hand," one western diplomat said.

Japan ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945 and tried to eradicate its identity as a nation. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to learn the Japanese language.

Since independence, South Korea has worked hard to reinstill its national pride. Today, people stop and come to attention on Seoul streets when the national anthem is played over loudspeakers.

Many South Koreans consider the United States to be their protector. But at the same time, anyone who aspires to leadership here must keep a bit of distance from the Americans.

For that reason, some analysts here, generally not fans of Kim, say he made a tactical mistake in the public eye by coming back surrounded by Americans and talking of danger.

Leaders must be a breed apart, said one Foreign Ministry officer. Kim "should be more daring and not care [so much] about his life or death," he said.

It is difficult to know what ordinary Koreans think about the American role at the airport because most apparently do not know about the incident. Government controls kept the news out of local newspapers, although some Koreans learned about it from ABC and Cable News Network reports broadcast on the U.S. military television network here.

Opposition spokesmen say the incident had a positive effect. It let people know that Americans care about democracy and freedom in South Korea, they say.