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UPDATE: Korea Jobless Rate Steady Despite Waning Export Demand

-- South Korea's seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 3.4% in April, unchanged from March

-- The increase in the number of jobs will continue into May, government says

-- Recent soft data leave analysts' BOK action forecasts mixed

(Adds comments from the government in sixth and seventh paragraphs and from an economist in the third and 11th paragraphs, plus background throughout.)

By Kanga Kong

Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES

GWACHEON, South Korea -(Dow Jones)- South Korea's unemployment rate was unchanged in April from March, data released Wednesday showed, despite uncertainty over economic performance through the rest of the year as demand for exports wanes.

But under the surface the data aren't as promising as the headline figure suggests, at a time when number-one trading partner China faces a hard landing and the U.S. battles to support its steadying recovery, economists said.

"Improvement in the job market won't be enough to lead to stronger economic growth," said Hyundai Securities economist Lee Sang-jae, pointing out that the on-year increase in the number of jobs is led by those in their 50s and 60s, which won't easily lead to strong gains in domestic demand.

The seasonally adjusted jobless rate stayed at 3.4% in April, Statistics Korea said in a statement. Unadjusted, the reading was 3.5% in April compared with 3.7% in March.

The number of people employed increased by 455,000 in April from the same month a year earlier, slightly stronger than March's 419,000, to 24.8 million. Of all those aged 15 or older, 59.7% were employed in April, compared with 58.6% in March.

The government said increased employment in the service industry was encouraging, but that an increase in the agriculture and fisheries industry was a one-off boost.

"The overall rising trend of the number of employed may continue into May as more are starting their own businesses and existing companies still lack sufficient workforces, but internal and external economic uncertainty may limit such an increase," the Ministry of Strategy and Finance said in a separate statement.

The data follows other economic indicators for April which showed exports declined and inflation as being slower than polled economists had forecast, partly due to fragile domestic demand.

The series of soft data readings has divided market watchers almost evenly in forecasting future policy action by the Bank of Korea.

A Dow Jones Newswires survey of 10 analysts last week showed all expect the BOK to leave its policy interest rate unchanged next month, but forecasts beyond that were divergent: three analysts expect a cut some time in the third quarter; another three project a hike in the fourth quarter; and the remaining four forecast no change at all this year.

Improvement in the U.S. and Chinese economies should help Korea's economy from the second half, but domestic demand is unlikely to be strong enough to quicken inflation before the end of the year, whereas exports are likely to continue contracting in the coming months, said Hyundai's Lee, forecasting the BOK to hold its rate throughout the rest of the year.

Other government data for April released earlier this month showed exports contracted a revised 4.8% on year to $46.2 billion and imports contracted 0.2% to $44.1 billion, making a trade surplus of $2.12 billion. The consumer price index rose 2.5% on year.

-By Kanga Kong, Dow Jones Newswires; 822-3700-1900; kanga.kong@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 15, 2012 23:02 ET (03:02 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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