Year-on-year, imports increased 0.9 percent to USD 43.91 billion, far lower than a 11.5 percent rise in November and missing market expectations of a 4.2 percent growth.
Exports declined 1.2 percent to USD 48.46 billion, following a 4.1 percent gain in a month earlier and also below market estimates of a 3.3 percent rise. It was the first drop in outbound shipments in three months, amid ongoing trade conflict between China and the US. Sales of semiconductors, which dominate the country’s sales, were down 8.3 percent.
Exports to China, South Korea's top trading partner, contracted 13.9 percent and marking the second straight month of fall.
For full 2018, the trade surplus was at USD 70.5 billion, reaching the 10th straight year the country sold more goods than it bought. Sales for the year grew 5.5 percent from the same period the prior year to a record high of USD 605.5 billion, about a third of the 15.8 percent gain in the preceding year, with shipments of semiconductors, general machinery and petrochemicals mainly contributing to the increase in 2018. Among major trading partners, exports to China surged 14.2 percent to USD 162.2 billion, supported by strong demand for memory chips, petrochemical products and general machinery. Also, sales to the US rose 6 percent to USD 72.7 billion, driven by general machinery and memory chips, and despite tougher import restrictions imposed by the administration of President Donald Trump. Exports to the ASEAN countries grew 5.3 percent to USD 100.3 billion, due to solid sales of memory chips and petrochemical products. Meanwhile purchases for the year jumped 11.8 percent to USD 505.0 billion.