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By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Oct. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's exports rebounded for the first time in seven months in September amid the coronavirus pandemic, data showed Thursday, helped by increased shipments of chips and automobiles as major trade partners gradually resumed their business activities amid the pandemic.
Outbound shipments came to US$48 billion last month, up 7.7 percent from $44.6 billion posted a year earlier, according to the data compiled by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
The on-year gain in exports marked the largest increase since October 2018, the ministry said, when exports advanced 22.5 percent on-year.
Imports edged up 1.1 percent to $39.1 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of $8.8 billion, marking the largest surplus in two years.
The latest figures exceeded market expectations. According to a poll by Yonhap Infomax, the financial arm of Yonhap News Agency, the country's September exports were expected to have increased 2.8 percent on-year.
The daily average export volume reached $2.09 billion, which marked the highest figure since September 2019.
By segment, outbound shipments of chips, one of the country's mainstay export goods, jumped a whopping 11.8 percent on-year to $9.5 billion, extending their gain to a third month.
Chips took up nearly 20 percent of the monthly exports in September.
The ministry said while demand from the server segment has been losing ground due to the reduced amount of investment from data center operators, the mobile sector fared better than expected in the United States and Europe.
Outbound shipments of automobiles moved up 23.2 percent to $3.79 billion, marking the first on-year rise in six months, as global demand slowly recovered.
Overseas sales of cars have been sluggish over the past few months due to lockdowns imposed on major trade partners, with the economic jitters also inducing consumers to delay purchases of them.
Shipments of machines edged up 0.8 percent, also rebounding for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry said. The on-year rise came as China expanded investment in infrastructure projects, leading to more demand for South Korean goods.
Chips, cars and machines accounted for 35 percent of the country's overall exports in 2019.
Exports of electronics also increased 30.2 percent over the cited period, with overseas sales of batteries advancing 21.1 percent.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea's exports of biohealth products jumped nearly 80 percent on-year in September. With more people working from home around the globe, exports of computers shot up 66.8 percent as well.
Steel products rebounded for the first time in nine months by rising 1.8 percent, also on improved demand from China.
Outbound shipments of agricultural products increased 18.3 percent on-year in the month on the back of social distancing as well.
Overseas sales of petrochemical products, however, shed 5.3 percent due to the falling global price of oil. Shipments of mobile devices fell 12.5 percent on-year in September, while those of displays fell 1.9 percent as well.
By destination, exports to China, the largest trading partner, expanded 8.2 percent on-year in September to $12.3 billion, on the back of stronger demand for chips and steel products, in tune with its recovering economy.
Outbound shipments to the United States rose 23.2 percent over the period to $7 billion, on the back of robust sales of SUVs and home appliances.
The two countries accounted for 40 percent of the combined exports in the month.
Exports to the members of the European Union added 15.4 percent.
Overseas sales to Southeast Asia edged up 4.3 percent as more countries lifted social distancing schemes.
Shipments to neighboring Japan, however, dropped 6 percent, as they purchased fewer steel products and machines amid the sluggish economy, the data showed.
"Despite (the recovery), South Korea needs to stay vigilant," Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo said in a statement. "We need to closely monitor (trade-related issues) due to the gradual spread of COVID-19, coupled with the risk stemming from the tension between the United States and China."
The ministry, however, pointed out it is significant that exports recovered after seven months, considering it took more than a year for them to rebound in previous crises, such as the global financial crisis in 2009.
Asia's fourth-largest economy had extended its slump in exports to a sixth month in August, as the new coronavirus around the globe continued to strain business activities.
The country enjoyed a 4.5 percent rise in its outbound shipments in February, the first on-year rebound in 14 months.
But the country's outbound shipments, however, fell again in March as the number of COVID-19 cases around the globe escalated, and the pace of decline further accelerated, plunging 25.5 percent in April and 23.6 percent in May.
South Korea's exports, which dropped more than 10 percent on-year in 2019, were earlier anticipated to rebound throughout 2020 on the back of the recovery in sales of memory chips.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, splashed cold water on that notion, straining the export-oriented economy.
The central bank data showed the economy shrank 3.2 percent in the April-June period from the previous quarter, the biggest on-quarter drop since a 3.3 percent retreat posted in the last three months of 2008.