South Korea's imports of Iranian crude in April fell nearly 45 percent from a year ago to 4.18 million barrels, official data showed on Wednesday, below expectations just ahead of talks with Washington to extend a waiver for U.S. sanctions on Tehran, Reuters reported.
The world's No.5 crude buyer and one of Iran's top four customers bought 139,400 barrels per day (bpd) from Iran in April, up 7.5 percent from a month ago on a daily basis, according to Reuters calculations based on the latest official data.
South Korea had been expected to import about 190,000 bpd - or 5.7 million barrels - of Iranian oil in April, according to preliminary loading data obtained by Reuters.
U.S. and European Union sanctions aimed at choking the flow of oil money into Iran and forcing Tehran to negotiate curbing its controversial nuclear programme slashed its crude exports in half in 2012, costing it as much as $5 billion a month.
South Korea's crude imports from Iran in the first four months of the year decreased 28.4 percent from the same period a year ago to 18.07 million barrels, the data from the state-run Korea National Oil Corp showed.
South Korea's total crude imports came in at 69.12 million barrels in April, down 5.6 percent from a year earlier, the data said.
South Korea's Iranian oil imports from December through April have declined 19.7 percent year on year as it seeks to extend a waiver on U.S. sanctions for the next six months.
The United States is due in June to review the waiver that makes it possible for South Korea to continue the shipments from Iran without being cut off from the U.S. financial system.
Oil importers that make continuous reductions in their purchases from Iran can be granted exemptions to the sanctions.
South Korea, which reduced crude imports from Iran by more than a third to 153,400 barrels per day last year, is aiming for a 20 percent cut in the six months to May 31 from a year ago to secure its third 180-day extension.
During the upcoming talks, Seoul officials will discuss making additional cuts in Iranian crude imports over the next six months.
The lower Iranian crude imports in the first fourth months of this year can also be attributed to heavy maintenance shutdowns.
The two South Korean buyers of Iranian crude - refiners SK Energy and Hyundai Oilbank - are shutting a combined 560,000 bpd of refinery capacity for planned maintenance between March and June.
Korea imported 157,596 bpd of Iranian oil from December through April, according to Reuters calculations based on the latest KNOC data, versus 184,727 bpd from December 2011 through May 2012.
To meet the target of reducing Iranian imports, South Korea will have to cut an additional 9,815 bpd or 6.2 percent from the December-April rate.