South Korea’s Top 10 Exports

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Nicknamed the Land of the Morning Calm, South Korea’s exports totaled US$605.2 billion during 2018. This latest metric represents a 5.5% year-over-year uptick since 2017 and a 5.6% gain over the 5-year period starting in 2014.

As of September 2, 2019, South Korea exported $318.3 billion worth of goods during the first 7 months of 2019 down -8.7% compared to the same period one year earlier.

Two-thirds (67%) of South Korea’s exports by value were delivered to other Asian countries while 14.9% were sold to North American importers. South Korea shipped another 11.4% worth of goods to Europe. Smaller percentages went to Latin America (2.6%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, Oceania (2.3%) led by Australia then Africa (1.7%).

Given South Korea’s population of 51.4 million people, its total $605.2 billion in products exported during 2018 translates to roughly $11,800 for every resident in the southeast Asian nation.

In macroeconomic terms, South Korea’s total exported goods represent 28.3% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2018 ($2.136 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 28.3% for exports to overall GDP in PPP for 2018 compares to 33.8% for 2014, seeming to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Korea’s total economic performance. And while this article focuses on exported goods, it is interesting to note that South Korea also provided $96.6 billion worth of exports-related services to global customers for an additional 4.5% of GDP in PPP.

Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Korea’s unemployment rate was 4% at May 2019 up from 3.7% one year earlier, according to Trading Economics.

South Korea’s Top 10 Exports

Top 10

The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South Korean global shipments during 2018. South Korea’s top 10 exports are relatively concentrated, accounting for 85.2% of the overall value of its shipments. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall South Korean exports.

At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level, South Korea’s most valuable exported products are electronic integrated circuits trailed by refined petroleum oils, cars then automobile parts or accessories.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$184.6 billion (30.5% of total exports)
  2. Machinery including computers: $77.7 billion (12.8%)
  3. Vehicles: $61.2 billion (10.1%)
  4. Mineral fuels including oil: $48.2 billion (8%)
  5. Plastics, plastic articles: $34.9 billion (5.8%)
  6. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $27.8 billion (4.6%)
  7. Organic chemicals: $25.4 billion (4.2%)
  8. Iron, steel: $24.8 billion (4.1%)
  9. Ships, boats: $20.3 billion (3.4%)
  10. Articles of iron or steel: $10.5 billion (1.7%)

Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of South Korea’s Most Valuable Export Products further down below.

Among South Korea’s top 10 export categories, mineral fuels including oil was the fastest-growing via its 32.7% appreciation from 2017 to 2018.

South Korean shipments of electrical machinery and equipment were worth 13.2% more in 2018 compared to 2017. In third place for improving export sales was machinery including computers, increasing in value by 12% year over year.

Leading the decliners was the ships and boats category (down -50.4%) then iron or steel articles (down -19.9%), optical, technical and medical apparatus (down -4.1%) then South Korean exported vehicles (down -1.2%).

Advantages

Overall South Korea achieved a $70 billion trade surplus for 2018, down -26.6% from the $95.3 billion worth of black ink generated during 2017.

The following types of South Korean product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.

In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$99.9 billion (Up by 24.5% since 2017)
  2. Vehicles: $44.3 billion (Down by -4%)
  3. Plastics, plastic articles: $23.1 billion (Up by 13.4%)
  4. Ships, boats: $18.7 billion (Down by -52.5%)
  5. Machinery including computers: $17.5 billion (Up by 99%)
  6. Organic chemicals: $11.1 billion (Up by 12.3%)
  7. Iron, steel: $8.3 billion (Up by 43.5%)
  8. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $5.4 billion (Down by -26.3%)
  9. Rubber, rubber articles: $5.2 billion (Up by 4.8%)
  10. Perfumes, cosmetics: $4.2 billion (Up by 38.7%)

South Korea has highly positive net exports in the international trade of electronic integrated circuits and microassemblies as well as phone system devices including cellular and landline phones. In turn, these cashflows indicate South Korea’s strong competitive advantages under the electrical machinery and equipment product category.

Opportunities

Below are exports from South Korea that are negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on South Korea’s goods trail the home country’s import spending on foreign products.

  1. Mineral fuels including oil: -US$98.7 billion (Up by 34.1% since 2017)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: -$14.6 billion (Up by 4.8%)
  3. Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$5.5 billion (Up by 17.3%)
  4. Meat: -$5.1 billion (Up by 16%)
  5. Other chemical goods: -$3.9 billion (Up by 0.4%)
  6. Inorganic chemicals: -$3.8 billion (Up by 32.4%)
  7. Wood: -$3.7 billion (Up by 10.6%)
  8. Fish: -$3.6 billion (Up by 24%)
  9. Cereals: -$3.4 billion (Up by 12.3%)
  10. Aluminum: -$3.3 billion (Down by -4%)

South Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil and petroleum gases, key inputs needed for its highly industrialized economy to function effectively.

These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive disadvantages in the international fossil fuel market, but also represent potential opportunities for South Korea to improve its position in the global economy by innovating alternative energy supplies.

Companies

South Korean Export Companies

Wikipedia lists many of the larger international trade players from South Korea including:

  • Hyundai Motor (car, truck manufacturing)
  • Hynix Semiconductor (semiconductors)
  • SK Holdings (oil, gas)
  • LG Electronics (consumer electronics)
  • Doosan Heavy Industries (heavy machinery)
  • S-Oil (oil, gas)
  • Lotte Chemical (specialized chemicals)
  • KT&G (tobacco)

According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of South Korean exporters:

  • LG Electronics (dryers, washing machines, refrigerators, freezers)
  • Samsung Electronics (telecommunication equipment, refrigerators, freezers)
  • Hankook Tire (rubber inner tubes, vehicle tires, latex)


 

South Korea’s capital city is Seoul.

Searchable List of South Korea’s Most Valuable Export Products

At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, South Korea’s top export products are electronic circuitry followed by refined petroleum oils, cars then automobile parts or accessories.

The following searchable table displays 200 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Korea during 2018. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2017.

RankSouth Korean Export Product2018 Value (US$)Change
1Integrated circuits/microassemblies$109.8 billion+27.5%
2Processed petroleum oils$44.9 billion+34.2%
3Cars$38.2 billion-1.5%
4Automobile parts/accessories$19.5 billion-0.2%
5Cruise/cargo ships, barges$15.8 billion-34.4%
6Phone system devices including smartphones$14.3 billion-8.8%
7Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools$13.5 billion-13%
8Computer parts, accessories$12.1 billion+60.3%
9Cyclic hydrocarbons$11.3 billion+11.9%
10Machinery for making semi-conductors$8.7 billion+26.1%
11TV/radio/radar device parts$7.4 billion-9.4%
12Electric storage batteries$7.2 billion+21.5%
13Miscellaneous machine electrical parts$6.8 billion-15.2%
14Miscellaneous machinery$6.6 billion+9.5%
15Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)$6.5 billion+9.2%
16Solar power diodes/semi-conductors$6 billion-2.8%
17Computers, optical readers$6 billion-4.4%
18Polyacetal/ether/carbonates$5.6 billion+16.7%
19Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$5.3 billion+8.5%
20Printed circuits$5 billion-9.6%
21Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations$4.9 billion+25.9%
22Propylene/olefin polymers$4.6 billion+15.7%
23Ethylene polymers$4.4 billion+7.8%
24Styrene polymers$4.1 billion+7.8%
25Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates$3.8 billion+5.4%
26Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)$3.6 billion+14.9%
27Rubber tires (new)$3.5 billion+1.1%
28Acyclic hydrocarbons$3.3 billion+10.9%
29Insulated wire/cable$3.3 billion+12.3%
30Light vessels, fire boats, floating docks$3.3 billion-79.4%
31Synthetic rubber$3.1 billion+3.7%
32Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips$3.1 billion+5.5%
33Other measuring/testing machines$3 billion+0.2%
34Air or vacuum pumps$3 billion+8.8%
35Polycarboxylic acids$3 billion+5.8%
36Lower-voltage switches, fuses$2.9 billion+4.1%
37Piston engine parts$2.8 billion+7.2%
38Machinery parts$2.8 billion+16.6%
39Unrecorded sound media$2.6 billion+204.2%
40Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$2.5 billion+9.6%
41Flat-rolled stainless steel items$2.5 billion+14.2%
42Blood fractions (including antisera)$2.4 billion+28.3%
43Miscellaneous iron and steel structures$2.4 billion-51%
44Taps, valves, similar appliances$2.1 billion+9.3%
45Electrical converters/power units$2.1 billion-7%
46Refrigerators, freezers$2.1 billion-16.9%
47Flat-rolled other alloy steel products$2 billion+5.6%
48Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels$1.9 billion+17.4%
49Self-adhesive plastic in rolls$1.9 billion+6.8%
50Temperature-change machines$1.9 billion+9.9%
51Centrifuges, filters and purifiers$1.8 billion+23.8%
52Zinc (unwrought)$1.8 billion+13.6%
53Miscellaneous iron or steel items$1.8 billion+11.7%
54Aircraft parts$1.8 billion+2.6%
55Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)$1.8 billion+7.2%
56Moulding boxes/base$1.8 billion-6.5%
57Electric circuit parts, fuses, switches$1.8 billion-37.1%
58Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips$1.7 billion+13.9%
59TV receivers/monitors/projectors$1.7 billion-7.9%
60Synthetic yarn woven fabrics$1.7 billion-0.7%
61Trucks$1.7 billion-3.9%
62Acrylic polymers$1.7 billion+15.4%
63Interchangeable hand/machine tools$1.7 billion+10.8%
64Miscellaneous plastic items$1.6 billion+11.3%
65Aluminum plates, sheets, strips$1.6 billion+17.9%
66Refined copper, unwrought alloys$1.6 billion+7.1%
67Electrical capacitators$1.5 billion+21.2%
68Transmission shafts, gears, clutches$1.5 billion+6.5%
69Liquid pumps and elevators$1.5 billion+2.1%
70Plastic packing goods, lids, caps$1.5 billion+5%
71Miscellaneous iron or steel tubes, pipes$1.5 billion-25.8%
72Coated paper$1.4 billion+8.5%
73Inorganic compounds$1.4 billion+266.3%
74Lifting/loading machinery$1.4 billion+20%
75Uncarded synthetic staple fibers$1.4 billion+19.6%
76Petroleum oil residues$1.4 billion+4.3%
77Other than warp-knit fabrics$1.4 billion-4.4%
78Chemicals used in electronics$1.3 billion+87.6%
79Air conditioners$1.3 billion-4.7%
80Other nitrogen compounds$1.3 billion+4.9%
81Silver (unwrought)$1.3 billion-6.9%
82Electrical lighting/signaling equpment, defrosters$1.3 billion+3.3%
83Electric motors, generators$1.3 billion+5.8%
84Warships, lifeboats$1.2 billion+18.7%
85Electrical machinery$1.2 billion+8.7%
86Chemical industry products/residuals$1.2 billion+14.4%
87Phenols/phenol-alcohols$1.2 billion+59.7%
88Ball, roller bearings$1.2 billion+14.8%
89Piston engines$1.1 billion+17.8%
90Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)$1.1 billion+10.5%
91Synthetic filament yarn$1.1 billion+10.6%
92Wide knit or crochet fabrics$1.1 billion-5.1%
93Amino-resins$1.1 billion+11.2%
94Regulate/control instruments$1 billion+11.5%
95Engines (diesel)$995.9 million-16.5%
96Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers$973.7 million+32.5%
97Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants$969.4 million+32.1%
98Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)$956.1 million+3.2%
99Iron or steel pipe fittings$955.6 million+13.3%
100Iron ferroalloys$945.5 million+54.1%
101Acyclic alcohols$924.9 million+17.6%
102Oxometal/peroxometal acid salts$922 million+33.5%
103Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers$908.5 million+5.9%
104Hydrogen, rare gases$890.4 million-31%
105Physical/chemical analysis tools$884.5 million+13.3%
106Metal-removing lathes$881.1 million+49.2%
107Miscellaneous engines, motors$878.7 million+40.8%
108Lead (unwrought)$865 million+3%
109Plastics-infused textile fabrics$853 million+0.7%
110Other food preparations$852.1 million+8.9%
111Aircraft, spacecraft$806.7 million+0.1%
112TV receiver/transmit/digital cameras$794.3 million-48.4%
113Cigars/cigarellos, cigarettes$792.4 million-29.6%
114Printing machinery$791.8 million-14.8%
115Medication mixes in dosage$790.7 million+3.4%
116Iron or non-alloy steel angles, shapes, sections$790.3 million+21.7%
117Copper wire$761 million+10.7%
118Base metal mountings, fittings$759.1 million+11.4%
119Rubber/plastic article making machines$750.3 million+5.6%
120Vapour-based boilers$732 million-6.8%
121Public-transport vehicles$705.3 million-12.6%
122Yarn wash/clean/iron machines$701.6 million-12.5%
123Metal-working machinery$692.5 million+43.8%
124Fork-lift trucks$681.9 million+28.8%
125X-ray equipment$681.7 million+14.2%
126Whole fish (frozen)$681.6 million+1.9%
127Vinyl chloride polymers$667.7 million+14.6%
128Tractors$660.3 million+17.8%
129Washing machines$656.8 million-38.3%
130Vulcanized rubber items$651.8 million+3.9%
131Copper foil$650.8 million+24.1%
132Other machine parts, accessories$649.2 million+13.1%
133Copper plates, sheets, strips$645.6 million+12%
134Made-up clothing parts$632 million+10.8%
135Photographic chemicals$618.4 million+8.5%
136Iron and steel tubes, pipes$609.9 million+0.8%
137Lenses, prisms, mirrors$607.7 million-14.3%
138Synthetic organic coloring$605.2 million+24.4%
139Polyamides$600.3 million+4.2%
140Plastic tile or roll coverings$566.4 million+9.9%
141Packaged insecticides/fungicides/herbicides$562.5 million+33.5%
142Radar, radio communication items$558.3 million+10%
143Pasta, couscous$556 million+8.1%
144Bent, edgeworked glass$548.2 million+10.1%
145Paint/varnish non-aqueous solution$545.6 million+6.8%
146Gold (unwrought)$544.4 million-2.4%
147Electric water heaters, hair dryers$542.7 million-0.3%
148Electric ignition/start equipment$538.7 million-4.2%
149Prepared glues, adhesives$537.9 million+17.2%
150Iron and steel stranded wire, cables (uninsulated)$533.7 million+4%
151Aluminum (unwrought)$520.8 million+74.6%
152Turbo-jets$518.6 million-11.5%
153Petroleum resins$518.2 million+11.8%
154Orthopedic appliances$514.3 million+18.9%
155Other organic cleaning preparations$514.1 million-1.1%
156Petroleum gases$512.9 million+35.8%
157Bombs, grenades, ammunition$507.2 million+8.5%
158Alloy steel bars, rods$503.5 million+60.8%
159 Dishwashing, clean/dry/fill machines $487.7 million-4%
160Spray/dispersing mechanical appliances$481.4 million+38.9%
161Coiled iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods$479.3 million+25.5%
162Machine-tool for metal$478.1 million-18.1%
163Metal soldering/hot-spray equipment$475.8 million-14.2%
164Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)$469.5 million+20.8%
165Unsaturated acyclic mono acids$462.9 million+16.5%
166Heterocyclics, nucleic acids$459 million-10.8%
167Nitrile-function compounds$455.6 million+13.9%
168Iron or steel tubes, pipes$449.8 million-8.2%
169Lamps, lighting, illuminated signs$447.5 million-14.8%
170Flat-rolled stainless steel items (thin)$446.8 million-5.5%
171Other animal leather$435.1 million-7.1%
172Warp knit fabrics$423.6 million+0.3%
173Other diagnostic/lab reagents$423 million+4.5%
174Cermet plates, sticks, tips$420.1 million+11.1%
175Locks, lock-keys$415.7 million-1.9%
176Aluminum foil (thin)$415.1 million+17.6%
177Microphones/headphones/amps$409.2 million-9.5%
178Cast/rolled glass in sheets$405.2 million+19.7%
179Iron or non-alloy steel wire$392 million+3.3%
180Coated/laminated non-wovens$387.9 million+4.6%
181Electric motor parts$379.7 million+3.6%
182Miscellaneous aluminum items$364.6 million+10.6%
183Copper tubes, pipes$355.8 million+0.9%
184Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)$342.7 million-12.7%
185Carbon/self-copy paper$340 million+63.6%
186High-voltage switches, fuses$337.5 million-19.2%
187Telecommunication receivers$337.4 million-9.3%
188Other alloy steel wire$333.5 million+12.5%
189Magnets including electro-magnets$332.1 million+3.8%
190Fish fillets, pieces$329.9 million+2.1%
191Worn clothing$328.8 million+7.1%
192Copper bars, rods$328.2 million+14.7%
193Pigments, enamels, glazes$327.9 million-21.1%
194Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings$317.9 million+22.9%
195Silicones$315.5 million+17.7%
196Stone/mineral substance articles$306.1 million+34%
197Iron or steel scrap$303.1 million-18.5%
198Miscellaneous carbon$299.2 million+42.5%
199Sodium/potash hydroxide, peroxide$292.2 million+7.6%
200Newsprint (rolls or sheets)$288.1 million+7.9%

These 200 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$558.3 billion or 92.2% by value for all products exported from South Korea during 2018.

See also South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies, South Korea’s Top Trade Partners and Top South Korean Trade Balances

Research Sources:
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on September 2, 2019

International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on September 2, 2019

Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on September 2, 2019

The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on September 2, 2019

Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on September 2, 2019

Wikipedia, List of Companies of South Korea. Accessed on September 2, 2019

Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on September 2, 2019

Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on October 21, 2015