The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment ruled this week that the South Korean Embassy can keep its commercial affairs office in an Embassy Row town house even though it moved into the facility in December without first obtaining the required occupancy permit from the D.C. government.

The South Korean proposal, strongly supported by the State Department, sailed easily through the four-member zoning panel at a hearing that lasted less than an hour, an unusually short time for often-contentious chancery cases. The measure was approved unanimously and the zoning board members made no mention of the South Koreans' unauthorized move last winter to the town house at 2362 Massachusetts Ave. NW. No questions were asked of the South Korean representatives.

"We wish they could all go this way," said Ronald Mlotek, chief counsel for the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions. "They {the South Koreans} certainly recovered from a bad start."

Despite angry outcries from Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood activists when the South Koreans' occupancy of the town house was first discovered in February, the request by the foreign mission to permanently use the building went unopposed at Wednesday's hearing. Harold Washburn, chairman of the local Advisory Neighborhhood Commission, said that while he is against the South Koreans occupying the town house, there were no legal grounds on which to oppose their continued use of the building.

"If we're going to win these battles, we have to stick to the legal issues," Washburn said. "Some {chanceries} have to be accepted because of the zoning in the area."

But Washburn's counterpart, ANC Commissioner Jean Lindley, testified in support of the South Korean request, an unusual position for an activist from a neighborhood that has been fighting several chancery expansions in recent months. "My feeling is that they already own the property . . . and they are certainly in an area where there are plenty of other chanceries."

In July, after receiving permission from the State Department, the South Korean government paid $850,000 for the four-story town house one block north of Sheridan Circle. Five months later, 10 to 15 staff members of the mission's commercial affairs office moved into the 74-year-old building, which until last summer had been used as a residence.

After the unauthorized move was discovered earlier this year, the State Department, which is typically at odds with the city government and neigborhood leaders over the issue of expansion of chanceries, condemned the South Korean action.

Despite the agency "specifically requesting" that the South Koreans vacate the building until the necessary District approval was received, the foreign mission continued its operations. While a penalty of $100 per day could have been levied against the South Korean Embassy for violating zoning laws, District officials did not seek any fine, instead leaving the dispute to be handled by the State Department.

But Mlotek said his agency possesses "no enforcement powers" that could have forced out the South Koreans, and the matter was dropped until this week's zoning hearing.

The South Koreans' zoning request was also supported by the District's planning office, which nonetheless criticized the State Department for not forcing the South Koreans to comply with District zoning laws. "{The office of planning} formally protests the illegal occupancy of the structure as well as the State Department's failure to ensure compliance with the established procedures for locating chanceries" within the District, the planning agency said in a report on the matter.

Mlotek dismissed the planning office's charges as "not a very above-board shot at the {State} Department."

Yong Kyoo Kim, a counselor at the South Korean embassy, said at the hearing that the mission's commercial affairs office moved into the Massachusetts Avenue town house following "a misunderstanding of D.C. laws.

"We were erroneously led to believe that we had fully complied" with D.C. zoning laws, Kim testified. He said that after the embassy was informed of its "mistake," Korean officials tried unsuccessfully to locate temporary facilities for its commercial staff.

The expansion of chanceries, the office components of foreign missions, has come under increasing scrutiny in Sheridan-Kalorama and other District neighborhoods, particularly in residential Northwest enclaves where embassies generally seek to locate. Neighborhood leaders have charged throughout the debate that chanceries erode an area's residential character, eliminate scarce on-street parking spaces and heighten security concerns.