Containers pile up at Busan, the largest port in South Korea. Photo: AFP

South Korea saw its May exports take flight to the tune of a 45.6% gain, year-on-year,  as global demand soared for key items in the national industrial portfolio including semiconductors, cars and petrochemicals.

As some economies accelerate out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of increase, year-on-year, was the highest in 32 years, according to the website Trading Economics.

Overall, it was South Korea’s seventh straight month of export increases and its 13th month of trade surpluses, according to data from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy reported by the Yonhap news agency. Exports were worth US$50.7 billion last month, while imports were $47.8 billion, for a May trade surplus of $2.93 billion.

Even so, the May exports figures were a slight downturn month-on-month: Outbound shipments in April had been worth $51.19 billion.

Chips – the most valuable sector in South Korea’s export suite – continue a bull run that has been sustained through the pandemic.

Semiconductor exports soared 24.5% to $10 billion, their 11th straight month of gains. South Korea is the world’s leading supplier of memory chips, a sector that has benefitted from the Covid-era’s demand both for data centers and for devices for work and recreation.

There has also been rising demand for 5G smartphones. Exports of South Korean mobile appliances were up 41.4% to $1.19 billion, notably on strong demand from Europe.

Shipments of automobiles leaped 93.7% to $3.49 billion due to soaring demand for premium models, notably sports utility vehicles.

The ongoing global recovery is increasing demand for petrochemical products across sectors and South Korean petrochemicals saw on-year growth of 94.9%, hitting $4.5 billion.

Exports to China jumped 22.7% on-year, while exports to the US were up 62.8%, most notably on demand for automobiles.

Overall, 2021 could prove to be a great year for Korean exports – and the longer-term outlook looks equally sunny.

“May’s total experts were the highest-ever May numbers, so I would argue that Korea has a portfolio of export industries that are perfectly arrayed for this decade,” Anthony Michell, founder of Seoul-based Euro-Asia Business Consultants, told Asia Times.

“I believe that exports of $50 billion per month are sustainable – which will be better than any previous year.”