SEOUL  - South Korea’s trade surplus fell in March from a year earlier due to a drop in exports to debt-hit Europe and slowing sales to China, the government said Sunday.

The trade surplus was $2.33 billion, compared with $2.48 billion in March 2011.

Exports fell to $47.36 billion, down 1.4 percent year-on-year, while imports also dipped 1.2 percent to $45.03 billion on falling purchases of products including memory chips, it said.

“Sales to the EU have dramatically dropped in the aftermath of its fiscal crisis and sales to China have considerably slowed, limiting our export growth,” the Knowledge Economy Ministry said. Exports to the European Union, South Korea’s second-largest trading partner after China, fell 20 percent, while sales to China grew only 0.7 percent in the same period, it said. In March 2011, exports to China posted year-on-year growth of 9.2 percent.

Overseas sales of South Korea’s flagship mobile devices dropped 32 percent from March 2011, it said. Exports of ships also tumbled 27.6 percent as demand from major European shipping operators slowed.

Exports of home appliances including TVs also dipped 14.1 percent. “TV exports slowed as flat-panel TV markets in advanced countries are increasingly saturated... Exports to China also fell as China’s domestic firms expand presence,” the ministry said. However, crisp overseas sales of cars, which jumped 35 percent, helped offset the drop in overall exports, the ministry said. And the surplus, an increase from $1.52 billion posted in February, was better than expected.

The median forecast of nine economists polled by Dow Jones Newswires was for a trade surplus of $1.8 billion. A landmark free trade pact with the US helped boost shipment to the South’s third-largest trading partner, with exports in March reaching $5.94 billion, up nearly 28 percent from a year ago, the ministry said. “Exports to the US showed robust growth thanks to the FTA that took effect on March 15 and expectations of the US economic recovery,” it said, adding auto parts and machinery makers benefited heavily.

The trade pact, which scraps duties on thousands of items, is the the biggest for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

The deal was originally signed in July 2007 but approved by lawmakers in both countries only late last year due to intense protests by opponents and a partial renegotiation to address US auto industry complaints.