[THE INVESTOR] South Korea’s exports surged 37.8 percent in the first 10 days of this month from a year earlier, according to the latest customs data released Jan. 11.
The country’s exports totaled $11.64 billion during the cited period, up from $8.46 billion recorded in the same period last year, mainly on the back of a sharp increase in outbound shipments of semiconductors and petroleum products.
The data from the Korea Customs Service showed imports also soared 38.6 percent on-year to $12.3 billion over the 10-day period, resulting in a trade deficit of $669 million.
The surge in exports at the outset of 2017 comes as encouraging news for Korea’s trade officials, who expect the country’s outbound shipments to rebound in the year. They project export growth of 2.9 percent on-year after two consecutive years of decline.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy saw its exports slump 5.9 percent last year, following a 7.9 percent decrease in 2015, due mainly to a slowdown in global trade and a drop in oil prices. It is the first time in more than half a century that South Korea’s exports have shrunk for two years in a row.
In a briefing to acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn last week on its policies for 2017, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy pledged to go all-out to boost exports by reorganizing the country’s industrial structure and responding swiftly to global trade issues.
The latest customs data reinforces the recent upbeat mode of Korea’s exports.
During the October-December period last year, the country’s shipments abroad rose by 1.9 percent on-year, the first positive quarterly figure in two years.
In December, South Korea saw its exports jump 6.4 percent from a year earlier to $45.1 billion, with imports also rising 7.3 percent to $38.1 billion.
Deputy Trade Minister Lee In-ho expressed cautious optimism that recovering global commerce stemming from an upturn in the US and big emerging markets would contribute to a rebound in South Korea’s exports this year.
Boosting exports is needed to help shore up the country’s sluggish economy, as private spending is weakening. A contraction in exports, which account for nearly half of Korea’s gross domestic product, has dragged down its growth in recent years.
“It may be difficult for Korean exports to increase at the rapid pace seen in the past, even if the world economy enters a full-blown recovery,” said Oh Sang-bong, former head of the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, who now teaches at Hallym University.
He said the fall in Korea’s exports over the past years should be seen as reflecting structural changes in global trade, including a reduction in demand for intermediary goods, which account for a large portion of the country’s outbound shipments.
To surmount the changing trend in international commerce, the Trade Ministry has set out a series of measures, including strengthening support for exporters of consumer goods and services and expanding funds to help small and medium-sized companies advance into overseas markets.
It is also a pressing task for trade policymakers and negotiators to cope with rising protectionist sentiment across the world, which is expected to worsen following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president next week.
According to the Korea International Trade Association, foreign authorities last year launched 40 new probes to decide whether to impose import restrictions on Korean products, up from 27 in 2015.
A looming trade conflict between China and the US, the two largest markets for Korean exporters, is also feared to have a negative impact on the country’s exports.
If the US puts into practice Trump’s campaign pledge to slap hefty tariffs on Chinese imports, particularly high-tech items assembled with imported parts, Korea’s exports to China would be hit hard.
The country saw its shipments to China and the US decrease by 9.2 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively, from a year earlier in 2016.
Experts note Korea also needs to be more attentive in keeping its trade surplus, particularly with the US, at an appropriate level, to avoid worsening complaints from its trading partners.
The country’s trade surplus stood at $89.8 billion last year, slightly down from $90.3 billion tallied in 2015. It is projected to further decrease to $74 billion this year.
The country is facing a particularly sharp complaint from the US, whose deficit with Korea rose from $9.4 billion in 2010 to $25.8 billion in 2015 before falling to $21.7 billion last year.
A continued trade surplus with the US will likely prompt Trump and his hard-line trade staff to designate Korea as a currency manipulator along with China and renegotiate a bilateral free trade agreement that took effect in 2012.
After being nominated as US trade representative last week, Robert Lighthizer was quoted by Trump’s transition team as saying “I am fully committed to President-elect Trump’s mission to level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies which will benefit all Americans.”
“As reducing exports to the US would add to dampening our economy, it is necessary to cut the trade surplus with the US by increasing imports,” said Kim Jung-sik, an economics professor at Yonsei University.
Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho told reporters last week the government was seeking ways to reduce the country’s trade surplus with the US, noting that importing shale oil was one of the options.
Korea depends nearly 100 percent on imports for its oil, with Dubai crude accounting for about 80 percent of the country’s supply.
Bae Sang-keun, vice president of the Korea Economic Research Institute, said Korea needed a more nimble approach as a country that relies on exports for its economic survival.
By Kim Kyung-ho/The Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org)