SEOUL, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- South Korean exports grew in September for the first time in seven months -- beating expectations and offering some positive recovery indicators for Asia's fourth-largest economy, according to government data Thursday.
Exports totaled $48 billion in September, a gain of 7.7% compared to the same period last year, the data from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy showed. Growth was driven by semiconductor and automobile shipments and represented the largest year-to-year jump since October 2018, the ministry said.
Semiconductor shipments climbed by about 12%, to $9.5 billion, and accounted for roughly 20% of South Korea's overall export total. The increase was helped by a smaller than anticipated sales slump in major mobile phone markets such as the United States, Europe and India, the ministry said, as well as an increase in devices used for telecommuting and distance learning.
Car exports grew by 23% to $3.8 billion, marking the sector's first rise in six months. U.S. demand for SUVs and a growing market for eco-friendly vehicles, which are a favorable factor in South Korea's exports, aided the growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven growth in other sectors -- including biohealth and computers.
The increase in exports could be "showing a recovery trend to the level before COVID-19," trade minister Sung Yun-mo said in a statement Thursday.
"The fact that the economic activities of major importing countries are getting out of a period of long sluggishness could be a positive signal in terms of recovery."
Sung warned of the continuing COVID-19 spread, as well as risk factors including conflict between the United States and China, saying that "continuous monitoring and an active response are needed."
China's recovering economy saw shipments expand by 8.2%, driven by demand for semiconductors and steel. Exports to the United States jumped by 23.2%, with SUVs and home appliances among the leading items, the ministry said.
The world's two largest economies were South Korea's greatest export destinations, accounting for a combined 40% of shipments.
The South Korean economy fell into a recession earlier this year due to the pandemic, but it hasn't been shaken as hard as the United States and the European Union because health officials have managed to contain the virus spread without going into full-scale lockdowns. The United States said Wednesday its economy declined by a record 31.4% in the second quarter.
An outbreak that started in Seoul in mid-August brought stricter distancing guidelines, which caused the Bank of Korea to downgrade its growth forecasts for 2020 from a contraction of 0.2% to a 1.3% decline.
The central bank said last week that the virus fallout would cause a slower-than-expected recovery for private consumption, but it saw no need to lower overall growth projections further despite the lingering spread of new cases.
South Korea's imports also grew in September, increasing by 1.1%, to $39.2 billion.