Recent months have seen Japan, China, Singapore and other export-dependent Asian economies report steep falls in trade as demand in key markets such as the US and Europe dries up.

According to South Korea's Ministry of Knowledge Economy, the first 20 days of January saw exports to the European Union fall by 46.9 per cent from a year earlier; to the US by 21.5 per cent; and to China by 32.2 per cent.

Stalling stimulus

Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, has said his country is facing a state of economic emergency as it teeters on the brink of recession and massive job losses.

In the fourth quarter of last year South Korea's gross domestic product fell by a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.6 per cent, the central bank announced last month, more than twice the rate analysts had forecast.

The latest gloomy news follows a string of interest rate cuts and government stimulus measures totalling more than $100bn aimed at helping the South Korean economy avoid its worst crisis since the Asian financial meltdown of 1997.

South Korea is one of the world's biggest exporters of tech goods such as computer chips, LCD panels and mobile phones, demand for which has slumped amid the deepening global recession.

Its huge shipbuilding industry has also seen orders slide as international demand for shipping shrinks amid slowing international trade.