(ATTN: UPDATES with paras 6-8, last 3 paras)
SEJONG, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's exports posted the first on-year rise in 20 months in August on the back of brisk demand for chips and flat displays, the trade ministry said Thursday.
Outbound shipments came to US$40.1 billion last month, up 2.6 percent from the same month last year, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
The upturn snapped a record 19th straight months of negative growth that began in January 2015.
Imports also made a turnaround to edge up 0.1 percent on-year to $34.8 billion, recording the first on-year rise in 23 months.
August's trade surplus came to $5.3 billion, marking the 55th consecutive month of a surplus.
The ministry took a cautious stance saying that the uptick in exports may not keep its upward pace in the remaining months of the year due to a stagnant recovery of oil prices and a possible U.S. rate hike.
"We expect our exports to continue to gain ground in the latter half, considering the fact that the August figure made a rebound despite partial strikes in the auto industry and the summer vacation season," said Cheong Seung-il, deputy trade minister for trade affairs, in a press briefing.
"But we have to face external issues that we can't control, such as a higher U.S. interest rate, oil prices and foreign exchange rates. I can't make a positive prediction that the pace will continue."
The trade ministry said a gain in shipments of 13 key items, including semiconductors, computers and flat panels, along with increased working days, led the rebound in August exports.
The combined exports of the 13 export products climbed 1.7 percent on-year in August, turning around from an 11.9 percent fall in July and a 4.1 percent drop in June.
Overseas sales of semiconductors gained 2.5 percent to reach $5.59 billion, the highest monthly value since September 2015, on the back of rising demand for mobile memory chips for new smartphones.
Petrochemical products exports also lent support, with the figure rising 4.1 percent to a 13 month high of $3.15 billion, while 28 vessels worth a combined $3.25 billion were exported, up 89.9 percent on-year last month.
Exports of flat panels, including liquid crystal displays, fell 7.1 percent but marked the slowest on-year decline since July last year to reach a 10 month high of $2.31 billion.
However, shipments of automobiles slumped 14.8 percent to $2.3 billion in August, the smallest monthly record since February 2010, due mainly to a partial strike at major carmakers, including Hyundai Motor Co.
By region, exports to Vietnam continued the upbeat mode to jump 22.8 percent last month, with shipments to Japan rebounding to 7.2 percent.
Exports to China, South Korea's largest export destination, sank 5.3 percent in August from a year ago, continuing their losing streak since the beginning of the year.
Shipments to the United States and the European Union also fell by 4.8 percent each.
The trade ministry expects the country's exports and imports will have a limited impact stemming from Hanjin Shipping Co., which filed for court receivership Wednesday, as the shipper has dealt with some 6 percent of the country's total maritime trade.
"The impact will not be very big to exports although the machinery and textile industries' exports largely depend on Hanjin Shipping," Deputy Minister Jeong said. "The government will do its best to minimize difficulties and damages that exporters will face."
Hanjin Shipping has been suffering worsening financial health stemming from a continued fall in freight rates amid the global economic slowdown and its creditors rejected its request for fresh funds.
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