SEOUL - South Korea's exports fell in March year-on-year for the sixth month in a row, hit by a cooling global economy and a persistent slump in the semiconductor sector, but exports did not fall by as much as expected, data showed on Saturday.

Asia's fourth-largest economy exported goods worth $55.12 billion in March, down 13.6% from a year earlier, the trade ministry's data showed, compared with drops of 7.5% in February and the 17.5% tipped in a Reuters poll.

It was the longest losing streak in exports in annual terms since August 2020.

For the January-March period, exports fell 12.6% from a year earlier, steeper than 10.0% in the preceding three months and the worst since the second quarter of 2020, boding ill for the heavily trade-dependent economy.

South Korea is the first major exporting economy to release trade data each month, with a diversified portfolio from chips to cars and ships, providing an early glimpse into the state of global demand.

By destination, exports to China dropped 33.4% in March, extending losses to a 10th straight month and marking the worst since January 2009. Shipments to the United States rose 1.6%, while those to the European Union fell 1.2%.

Semiconductor exports slumped 34.5%, in the eighth month of falls, but with the pace easing from a month before. Car exports jumped 64.2% to a record amount, but petrochemical products fell 25.1%.

Imports in March fell 6.4% to $59.75 billion, versus a 3.5% rise in the previous month and a 6.6% fall expected by economists. It was the fastest drop since August 2020.

As a result, the country clocked a trade deficit of $4.62 billion in March. It was the 13th consecutive monthly deficit, but the smallest since September 2022.

(Reporting by Jihoon Lee; Editing by Choonsik Yoo, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Raju Gopalakrishnan)