The State Department yesterday noted a "very strong and impressive trend" toward democracy in Latin America in its annual report on human rights and said the situation in Korea also has improved.

"Continued improvement in the Western Hemisphere was the only significant overall trend," Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary for human rights, said in releasing the report on 164 countries. He cited the recent return to civilian government in Brazil, the scheduled inaugural next month of an elected civilian president in Uruguay, the elections in Grenada, the promise of elections for a civilian government in Guatemala later this year "and a really significant downturn in death squad killings and disappearances" in El Salvador.

He dismissed the shoving match at the Seoul airport last week between Korean police and several prominent Americans escorting dissident Kim Dae Jung home from exile as "a trivial event" in comparison with the strong showing made in Tuesday's Korean elections by a new political party opposed to President Chun Doo Hwan's military government. The newly organized New Korea Democratic Party won what could be as many as 67 seats in the new National Assembly, and the holding of such an open election "clearly demonstrates the vitality of the liberalization and move to democratization" in South Korea, Abrams said in response to queries about whether he agreed with the South Korea findings.

"If we were doing the reports today," Abrams said, the department would have paid attention both to Tuesday's elections and to the airport scuffle that broke out on Kim's arrival. The Americans accompanying Kim, including two members of Congress, said they were beaten, kicked and knocked down.

He called Chile "the greatest disappointment" in the Western Hemisphere because the military government there has halted "the move toward a return to democratic government" and increased "the degree of political repression." Abrams also expressed concern about the continued instability stemming from the civil war in El Salvador, and he acknowledged that the level of violence in Guatemala remains high.

Nevertheless, Abrams noted, "in the last five years, nine countries of the hemisphere have moved to democracy from dictatorship and zero countries have gone from democracy to dictatorship."

The reports, which have been made at the direction of Congress for the past nine years, invariably stir controversy about whether the findings, compiled by American embassies around the world, are too harsh or too lenient. Critics of the Reagan administration also have charged that military-dominated countries allied to the United States often are given relatively easy treatment, while the Soviet Union and other communist bloc countries are described in tough terms.

That was denied by Abrams. who insisted that each report is made in an even-handed manner based on the best available evidence. He added:

"This institutionalization of the reporting system has the double benefit of allowing the United States to conduct ongoing conversations with countries about which we have serious human rights concerns without necessarily so damaging our bilateral relations that our effectiveness is drastically reduced."

The report's findings as to countries that have figured in rights controversies include:

* Israel. Although Israel is an "open democracy" with "strong respect for civil rights," its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues to cause strains in relations with the Palestinian inhabitants of these territories. "These problems were exacerbated as a consequence of the activities of Jewish settlers in those areas. Israeli leaders expressed concern over the potential growth of extreme views and violent actions and their effects on Israeli society."

* South Africa. "Despite the gradualist reform process seen in recent years, . . . the black African majority continues to be denied the basic rights of citizenship" and blacks are still subject to a variety of arbitrary detention measures and other rules severely limiting their political, social and economic development.

* The Philippines. Despite President Fernando Marcos's promise of "appropriate prosecution in a civilian court" of military leaders implicated in the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, political polarization and a growing leftist insurgency maintain a climate of continued violence, political killings, disappearances and frequent, if officially unsanctioned, rights abuses by authorities.

* Nicaragua. Under the leftist Sandinista government, 1984 saw a greater denial of basic political rights and restrictions on the press and the free exercise of religion. The report also notes Sandinista charges that its "contra" guerrilla opponents, which had the financial backing of the United States until last year, have engaged in murder, kidnaping and intimidation of civilians.

* El Salvador. Efforts by President Jose Napoleon Duarte's government to end violence and establish democracy have been achieving modest success, but El Salvador still is a long way from stability and the sure safeguarding of human rights.

* Iran. "Dissent from the political and religious views of the leadership is repressed, with an unknown number of political killings and at least 29 members of the Baha'i faith killed during 1984. "Stories of torture are rampant and cover a wide range of inhuman practices."

* The Soviet Union. "The regime's common response to efforts to exercise freedom of expression is to incarcerate those concerned in prison, labor camp or psychiatric hospital . . . . It is clear that mistreatment of political prisoners during incarceration and interrogation does occur."

* Taiwan. "In 1984, the dramatic human rights violations that have marred Taiwan's record in the past were absent." Still, "political evolution has not kept pace with economic development. Human rights are publicly endorsed, but incompletely realized" because of the government's insistence on controlling the political system.