* 2013 Port Hedland iron ore exports to China hit record 256 mln T

* Exports to Japan, South Korea drop to just over 2 mln T each for Dec

Iron ore exports to China from Australia’s Port Hedland, which handles about a fifth of the global seaborne market for the steel-making raw material, rose 19.4 percent in December from the same month a year ago.

Shipments to China amounted to 24.16 million tonnes in December compared to 20.23 million last year.

The December iron ore exports to China were also up from the 22.3 million tonnes recorded in November 2013, data from the Port Hedland Port Authority showed on Tuesday.

The December figures brought total 2013 exports to China to a record 256.06 million tonnes against 193.4 million in 2012.

Shipments to Japan fell to 2.07 million tonnes from 2.64 million tonnes; shipments to South Korea dropped to 2.02 million tonnes, down from 2.24 million tonnes.

Overall, iron ore exports were 29.46 million tonnes versus 26.0 million a year ago and 28.1 million tonnes in November.

The spot price for iron ore has defied analysts’ forecasts of a fall in recent months and was assessed at $134.80 a tonne on Monday versus a low for last year of just over $110 per tonne in late May.

Port Hedland is used by BHP Billiton , Fortescue Metals Group and Atlas Iron to ship iron ore cargoes.

The Port Hedland figures do not include iron ore shipments by Rio Tinto , Australia’s biggest producer.

Rio Tinto is expanding its export capacity by a third to 290 million tonnes from the Indian Ocean ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert south of Port Hedland.

All three ports were closed on the last few days of 2013 due to a passing cyclone but have since reopened.

Brazil is the world’s second-largest exporter of iron ore behind Australia, supplying about 30 percent.