trade balance-March

SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's trade surplus widened sharply in March from a year earlier as exports inched up while imports dwindled, the government said Monday.

The country chalked up a trade surplus of US$3.35 billion last month, compared with $2.28 billion a year earlier, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. Exports gained 0.4 percent on-year to $47.49 billion, while imports dropped 2 percent to $44.14 billion.

March marked the 14th consecutive month the country's trade balance stayed in the black.

The ministry attributed the growth in exports to an increase in shipments to Asian markets, including China.

"Exports increased slightly on growing shipments of IT products and shipments to newly emerging markets," it said in a press release.

Shipments to the 10-member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations jumped 17.5 percent on-year last month with those to China also growing 6.2 percent. Exports to the United States and Japan, on the other hand, plunged 15.4 percent and 18 percent on-year, respectively.

The ministry said the drop in shipments to Japan may have been fostered, at least partly, by a decline in the value of Japanese currency against the South Korean won.

"First, the drop in exports to the U.S. appears to have been caused largely by a base effect as shipments to the U.S. in March 2012 surged 27.9 percent on-year to $5.9 billion," Lee Woon-ho, the ministry's director general for trade, said during a press briefing.

"But partly, the weaker Japanese yen appears to have also affected the drop. Exports to Japan, too, appear to have been affected by a base effect, but in the case of Japan, the weaker yen appears to have had a more significant effect," he added.

As of Friday, the Japanese yen declined 21 percent against the U.S. dollar from a high of 77.49 yen per dollar in 2012 to 94.04 yen.

By product, outbound shipments of wireless communication devices, such as smartphones, surged 22.9 percent on-year to $2.07 billion in March, with shipments of semiconductors growing 6.5 percent to $4.59 billion over the cited period.

Automobile exports, including shipments of automobile parts, plunged 10.4 percent from a year earlier to a little over $4 billion. Shipments of steel products also dropped 13.2 percent on-year to $2.67 billion but mostly due to a drop in their prices, which tumbled from an average $1,034 per ton in March 2012 to $945 last month, the ministry said.

The drop in imports was caused by a 18.3 percent on-year drop in inbound shipments of consumer goods, the ministry said.

South Korea's exports in the first three months of the year amounted to $135.5 billion, up 0.5 percent from the first quarter of last year, with imports dipping 3 percent on-year to $129.7 billion over the cited period.

The ministry noted global conditions were continuing to improve, but said the country still needed to take additional steps to further boost its exports.

"For the country's exports to record a full-scale growth in the second quarter, it will need to take active measures to support exports, such as an expansion of export financing," it said.

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