By Joori Roh and Jihoon Lee
SEOUL, April 23 (Reuters) - South Korea's economy likely grew sharply in the first quarter of 2021 from a low base a year ago, buoyed by exports and investment, but quarterly growth slowed amid worries about surging COVID-19 cases at home and abroad.
Asia's fourth-largest economy likely expanded 1.1% in the first quarter from a year ago, at the height of the coronavirus crisis in 2020, according to a median forecast of 19 economists polled by Reuters. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.2% year-on-year in the December quarter.
On a quarterly basis, GDP is expected to have expanded by a seasonally adjusted 1.0% in the January-March period, slowing slightly from 1.2% growth in the fourth quarter of 2020.
While the economy has been supported by robust global demand for South Korean exports, domestic consumption has remained sluggish due to coronavirus restrictions and many economists worry surging cases at home and abroad could derail the recovery.
"Exports and facility investment were expected to lead the first-quarter growth, although a prolonged (COVID-19) social distancing measures would have likely stalled recovery in private consumption," said Park Sung-woo, analyst at DB Financial Investment.
Exports grew 16.6% in March - at their fastest pace in 29 months - due to robust demand for chips, cars and petroleum products. They grew 12.5% in the first quarter, marking the biggest quarterly expansion in more than three years.
South Korea stepped up coronavirus restrictions earlier this month amid fears of a potential fourth wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, with daily cases hitting three-month highs and the vaccination rate staying just above 3%.
"Private consumption is expected to show a subdued recovery. Due to a slow vaccine roll-out (in South Korea), it will take some time for a normalisation in the service sector, while the job market also remains sluggish," said Chun Kyu-yeon, economist at Hana Financial Investment.
Separately, economists forecast the economy will grow 3.4% this year, according to a median forecast of 36 economists in a separate Reuters poll, after shrinking 1.0% in 2020. That would be the fastest annual growth in a decade.
(Reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)
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