UPDATE 2-BOK raises interest rate for first time in six years

* 18 of 21 economists saw BOK to raise policy rate on Nov. 30

* Governor briefing at 11:20 a.m. Seoul time (0220 GMT) (Adds economist comment)

SEOUL, Nov 30 (Reuters) - South Korea's central bank raised interest rates for the first time in more than six years on Thursday - a vote of confidence that the economy is growing well above trend and no longer needs crisis-level monetary settings.

The Monetary Policy Board voted on Thursday to increase the benchmark rate to 1.50 percent from a record-low of 1.25 percent, ending a five-year easing cycle amid a sustained export boom.

Eighteen of 21 economists polled by Reuters had predicted the Bank of Korea would raise rates on Thursday, while the three others saw rates on hold at the current record-low 1.25 percent.

Thursday's decision removes the emergency stimulus in force since 2012 to boost the economy, and takes Asia's fourth largest economy into tightening territory - a journey already started by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the central banks of Britain and Canada.

Outside of Sri Lanka, South Korea is the only Asian country to hike rates since November 2014, when Indonesia raised borrowing costs.

"The South Korean economy is doing well," Nguyen Trinh, an economist at Natixis in Hong Kong said after the decision was announced.

"As a result of strong economic performance, the BOK is expected to raise policy rates. But not to worry, we argue that the South Korean economy is cyclically strong enough to absorb higher nominal rates."

After the BOK decision, the won was down 0.4 percent against the dollar as of 0054 GMT, slightly erasing earlier losses.

December futures on three-year treasury bonds were down 0.01 points to trade at 108.14, nearly unchanged from before the decision.

Markets had priced in a rate hike. The won gained 4 percent against the dollar and bond yield jumped to a three-year high this month as investors anticipated rates may increase in November, far earlier than the previous consensus.

In October, the bank upgraded its growth outlook for this year to 3 percent from 2.8 percent previously, and revised up the inflation outlook to 2 percent from 1.9 percent.

Lee Jae-Hyung, fixed income analyst at Yuanta Securities said the BOK's new tightening cycle would be implemented more gradually than previously.

"The BOK could try another hike in the second half of next year. The issue of the governor's term ending (in March 2018)won't have that much of an effect in the rate decision.

"There could be some dissenters given that the pace of growth in stock markets has slowed recently and the won also has strengthened too much," he said.

Growth in the third quarter showed the biggest jump in seven years, expanding 1.4 percent from three months earlier on a robust export cycle propelled by strong global demand for memory chips.

South Korea's finance minister this week said the economy is set to expand by more than 3 percent this year, faster than the 2.8 percent average growth rate for the past five years.

Annual consumer inflation for October was 1.8 percent, short of the BOK's 2 percent target.

There is little insight yet into how the run of voting went in Thursday's decision, but minutes from the bank's previous meeting revealed that three of the seven board members at its October meeting said a hike was needed soon.

North Korea declared on Wednesday it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that put all of the U.S. mainland within range, but markets largely ignored the event with the won gaining 0.7 percent against the dollar to 1,076.8, a two-and-a-half year high, before closing onshore trade.

(Reporting by Cynthia Kim and Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Dahee Kim; Editing by Eric Meijer)