Ever since the Korean war of the early 1950s, South Korea has seemed first and foremost a militant anticommunist ''cold warrior,'' anchored closely to the United States.
But beneath the vitriolic propaganda assaults against North Korea, there has been another South Korea. While striving to make up for the destruction of the war, this once-devastated land was as much a developing country as the African and Asian nations that are often classified as nonaligned.
Now South Korea is trying to change its image. The irony is that just as South Korea has become a more developed, industrial power, it is reemphasizing its common interests with more undeveloped, sometimes nonaligned countries, especially in Africa.
The reasons are twofold. Politically, South Korea aims to ensure solid support in the United Nations against positions advocated by North Korea. Economically, it hopes to earn valuable exchange from exports.
Along with this turned-up warmth for Africa, President Chun Doo Hwan has continued the relatively moderate posture on reunification maintained by the late Park Chung Hee.
Unlike the communist position, this calls for pragmatic, graduated contacts with the North without demanding in advance basic changes in the other side's political structure.
One supporter of President Chun's policies says he wants them pushed even further. He is Thok-Kyu Limb, a member of parliament who visited the United States recently. As a member of the moderately oppositionist Korean National Party, Mr. Limb welcomed President Chun's recent Africa initiatives.
''We must note that for the President to visit Africa is quite good, because it is not just good relations with the United States that are important,'' noted the MP, who is also an owner of the monthly magazine Diplomacy.
Mr. Limb has interviewed scores of political and diplomatic leaders from Asia , Africa, and other areas in his world travels as a scholar, jurist, and journalist. He argues for better relations with Africa and other underdeveloped areas.
One evidence of the trend Mr. Limb wants to encourage was President Chun Doo Hwan's four-nation visit to Africa Aug. 17 to 26.
The visit to Kenya, Nigeria, Gabon, and Senegal demonstrated Seoul's need to obtain resources from these countries in exchange for South Korean manufactured products. But the trip also illustrated South Korea's deep-seated need to build political support.
Just how far South Korea has yet to go was graphically illustrated when President Chun alighted from a Korean Airlines 747 in the Gambian capital of Libreville. As he and his hosts stood stiff and embarrassed, a Gabonese band piped up with a national anthem . . . but it was that of North Korea.
A glance at the scoreboard:
North Korea has diplomatic ties with 39 African countries, compared with South Korea's 28. North Korea has 30 diplomatic missions in Africa, compared to the South's 14.
North Korea's membership in the nonaligned movement gives it special access to many African states. South Korea's close alliance with the US cuts down on this kind of access.
Mr. Limb says one must ''wait and see'' to know just how successful President Chun's African trip was. But he suggests more such trips and establishment of more embassies abroad, as well as more South Korean-affiliated department stores and building projects using skilled South Korean labor.
One problem is the major imbalance between some $532 million of South Korean goods exported to Africa, compared with $153 million in return. South Korea's trade with all of Africa came to only 2.5 percent of its trade worldwide.
Another problem has been South Korea's reluctance to exclude white supremacist South Africa from political and nonpolitical ceremonies at home.
''This is a difficult one because South Africa helped South Korea defend itself from North Korea during the Korean war,'' a South Korean analyst noted.
Still another possible obstacle arises from accusations that South Korea commits human-rights violations by imprisoning opposition politicians such as Kim Dae Jung.
But these accusations of human-rights violations need not be an insurmountable barrier to closer ties with Africa, Mr. Limb says. ''After all many of these countries face similar human-rights problems.''
Mr. Limb says it is his duty as an opposition politician to seek broader political freedom in South Korea, as well as the release of political prisoners by President Chun. But he cautions, ''Freedom never comes as much as we want.'' At least not, he says, until reunification of the two Koreas removes South Korea's need for stern vigilance against subversives.