SEOUL, Jan 1 (Reuters) - South Korea's December exports slightly beat market expectations with annual growth of a handsome 7.1 percent, data showed on Wednesday, bolstering growth prospects for Asia's fourth-largest economy heading into the new year.
Shipments by the world's seventh-largest exporter were $48.1 billion last month, while imports grew an annual 3.0 percent to $44.4 billion. That led to a trade surplus of $3.7 billion, data from the Trade, Industry and Energy Ministry showed.
The median forecast from a Reuters survey was for an annual 6.4 percent rise in exports and a 3.5 percent gain in imports for December. In November, exports grew 0.2 percent and imports fell by 0.6 percent.
Exports grew an annual 4.8 percent in the final quarter of 2013, the best growth in two years, Reuters calculations show. Imports rose an annual 2.5 percent during October-December.
The data is another sign of economic momentum that should be sustained into 2014. The Bank of Korea expects quarterly growth of at least 0.8 percent in the fourth quarter, in seasonally adjusted terms, following growth of 1.1 percent in the two prior quarters.
For the full year, South Korean exports grew 2.2 percent while imports shrank by 0.8 percent, resulting in a trade surplus of $44.2 billion. The finance ministry said last week it expected exports to grow by 6.4 percent in 2014, benefiting from a gradual global recovery.
The trade ministry will disclose more detailed data on December's exports and imports, including regional breakdowns for South Korea's overseas shipments, around 0100 GMT.
(Reporting by Se Young Lee; Editing by Choonsik Yoo and John Mair)