(ATTN: REVISES headline, paras 1-3; ADDS details in paras 6-7, 20, 22-23)
By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Feb. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's exports fell at a slower-than-expected pace in January but extended the slump to a 14th consecutive month due to fewer working days and still weak demand for chips, data showed Saturday.
Outbound shipments came to US$43.35 billion last month, down 6.1 percent from $46.17 billion a year earlier, according to the data compiled by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
The declining pace was slower than the median forecast of a 7.5 percent on-year drop as a fall in chip exports moderated.
Imports moved down 5.3 percent on-year in January to $42.7 billion.
The country's trade surplus came to $620 million in January, marking 96 straight months in which the country's exports have exceeded imports.
The trade surplus, however, sharply narrowed from $1 billion posted a year earlier, as local importers increased their purchases of crude and other materials from the Middle East amid rising concerns over the geopolitical tension between the United States and Iran.
January's exports fell due to fewer working days last month compared with a year earlier, and chip demand still remaining weak.
The Lunar New Year's holiday, which follows the lunar calendar, fell during the Jan. 24-27 period this year, though it was in February in 2019.
But when measured by working days, exports increased 4.8 percent in January to reach $2 billion a day, marking the first on-year increase in 14 months, according to the ministry.
"In January, South Korea managed to keep its decrease in exports in the single digits, despite growing tension in the Middle East coupled with the outbreak of the new coronavirus," Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo said. "The decline was inevitable due to the fewer number of working days."
Sung said it was significant that exports posted the first on-year increase in 14 months on a daily basis, expecting a rebound in outbound shipments in February.
The latest global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has not had a significant impact on South Korea's overall exports for January, the ministry said.
The virus has killed more than 250 people in China so far, with the number of those infected also above 10,000. More than 10 cases have also reported in South Korea.
By product, South Korea's exports of chips fell 3.4 percent to $7.1 billion, marking the slowest decrease since December 2018. For all of 2019, outbound shipments of chips, the major export product for Asia's No. 4 economy, sank 25.9 percent on-year.
The ministry said a full fledged recovery in chip demand may be delayed if the novel coronavirus leads to an economic slowdown in China.
Exports of ships jumped a whopping 59 percent on-year to $2.8 billion as local shipbuilders won more orders overseas.
Shipments of cars decreased 22.2 percent on-year in January, and exports of petrochemical goods decreased 17.1 percent to $3.3 billion due to the sluggish global demand.
By country, exports to China moved down 10.5 percent in January from a year earlier to $9.69 billion, due mainly to the decrease in shipments of machinery, along with the Chinese Lunar New Year's holiday.
Exports to the United States lost 7 percent to $5.78 billion on weaker demand for South Korean cars and mobile devices.
The top two trading partners accounted for nearly 36 percent of South Korea's overall exports, according to the ministry.
Outbound shipments to Japan moved down 6.4 percent amid the monthslong trade feud between Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea's imports from the Asian neighbor dropped 21.9 percent.
The trade deficit with Japan narrowed to $720 million in January, marking the lowest amount since June 2001.
On the back of the country's efforts to diversify its trade portfolio, exports to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased 9.9 percent to $9.52 billion over the period, on the back of the increased shipments of ships and petrochemical goods.
Exports are expected to rise 3 percent this year on eased tension between the world's top two economies and the recovery of the global chip industry.
The country's overall exports moved down 10.3 percent in 2019.
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