South Korea’s big buys on U.S. oil, gas to keep bilateral ties strong

South Korea’s purchases of U.S. oil and gas this year will hold to the rapid pace set in 2018, likely narrowing its trade surplus with the world’s top economy further and bolstering its ties to Washington.

South Korea is expected in January and February to import at least 18 million barrels of crude oil and 900,000 tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States, according to trade flow data from Refinitiv Eikon.

That’s a four-fold increase on oil from a year earlier and a slight drop on LNG, indicating the record U.S. crude and LNG volumes heading into South Korea in 2018 are set to continue, supported by favorable market conditions brought about by increasing oil and gas output in the United States.

The jump in South Korea’s U.S. oil and gas imports comes as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to push to reduce trade deficits with the United States’ major trading partners by selling more to them than it buys. U.S. oil and LNG exports are a key part of this strategy.

“At the moment, the trend (of importing U.S. crude) will stay … The economics for U.S. crude is a little bit better than Middle East and North Sea oil,” said a South Korean refining source who declined to be named due to company policy.

Record U.S. crude oil and LNG volumes flowed into South Korea in 2018, while supplies from the Middle East were tightened amid OPEC-led output cuts and a re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The United States was South Korea’s sixth-biggest crude supplier last year, its highest ranking ever as it overtook Iran and Russia. It also became South Korea’s third-largest LNG supplier, while South Korea was the top importer of U.S. LNG.

South Korea’s U.S. oil and gas imports more than quadrupled in value to $6.75 billion in 2018 from $1.5 billion in 2017, according to the country’s customs data.

The U.S. oil import value of $4.5 billion alone was more than six times the $725 million taken in U.S. oil in 2017.

“Buying more U.S. oil and gas was part of (Seoul’s) strategy as our wide trade surplus against the United States was grounds for revising the Korea-U.S. free trade deal,” said Je Hyun-jung, director at the Korea International Trade Association.

South Korea’s 2018 trade surplus with the United States at $13.86 billion was the lowest since 2011, down 22.4 percent from $17.86 billion a year earlier, the customs data showed.

In 2017, Trump threatened to renegotiate or scrap what he called a “horrible” bilateral trade deal that had doubled the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea since 2012.

The two countries agreed to revise the deal last year, with Seoul capping its steel exports to the United States to avoid hefty tariffs and giving greater market access to U.S. carmakers. The revision took effect on Jan. 1.

Tilak Doshi, a Singapore-based analyst at consultancy Muse, Stancil & Co, said improving trade ties between South Korea and the United States will also support their shared goal of North Korea’s denuclearisation.

“Any help from the United States regarding North Korea is critical, so good trade relations will help. It also helps South Koreans to protect their exports to the United States by pointing to their (U.S.) energy imports,” Doshi said.