Nicknamed the Land of the Morning Calm, South Korea’s exports totaled US$542.3 billion during 2019. That dollar total represents a -10.4% year-over-year drop since 2018 but a 2.9% gain over the 5-year period starting in 2015.
Based on the average exchange rate for 2019, the South Korean won has depreciated by -3% against the US dollar since 2015 and declined by -5.9% from 2018 to 2019. The Republic of South Korea’s weaker local currency makes Korean exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive for international buyers.
Less than two-thirds (64.5%) of South Korea’s exports by value in 2019 were delivered to fellow Asian countries while 16.6% were sold to North American importers. South Korea shipped another 11.8% worth of goods to Europe. Smaller percentages went to Latin America (2.7%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, Oceania (2.5%) led by Australia then Africa (1.8%).
Given South Korea’s population of 51.8 million people, its total $542.3 billion in products exported during 2019 translates to roughly $10,500 for every resident in the southeast Asian nation.
South Korea’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups categorize the highest dollar value in South Korean global shipments during 2019. South Korea’s top 10 exports are relatively concentrated, accounting for 84% of the overall value of its shipments. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall South Korean exports.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$153.6 billion (28.3% of total exports)
- Machinery including computers: $70.9 billion (13.1%)
- Vehicles: $62.9 billion (11.6%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $42.1 billion (7.8%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $32.6 billion (6%)
- Iron, steel: $23.1 billion (4.3%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $21 billion (3.9%)
- Organic chemicals: $21 billion (3.9%)
- Ships, boats: $18.9 billion (3.5%)
- Articles of iron or steel: $9.2 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 this article.
The sole gainer from 2018 to 2019 among South Korea’s top 10 export categories was vehicles thanks to a 2.8% increase.
Leading the decliners were South Korean shipments of optical, technical or medical apparatus (down -24.6%), organic chemicals (down -17.2%) then electrical machinery and equipment (down -16.8%).
Overall South Korea achieved a $39.1 billion trade surplus for 2019, down -44.2% from the $70 billion worth of black ink generated during 2018.
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.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$63.9 billion (Down by -36% since 2018)
- Vehicles: $46.2 billion (Up by 4.1%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $21.1 billion (Down by -8.8%)
- Machinery including computers: $19.3 billion (Up by 10.4%)
- Ships, boats: $17.7 billion (Down by -5.6%)
- Organic chemicals: $8.3 billion (Down by -25.6%)
- Iron, steel: $7.4 billion (Down by -10.6%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: $4.5 billion (Down by -13.1%)
- Perfumes, cosmetics: $4.5 billion (Up by 6.3%)
- Knit or crochet fabric: $2.6 billion (Down by -13.5%)
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. Albeit shrinking, these cashflows indicate South Korea’s strong competitive advantages under the electrical machinery and equipment product category.
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.
- Mineral fuels including oil: -US$85.2 billion (Down by -13.8% since 2018)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$14.7 billion (Up by 0.8%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$5.5 billion (Up by 0.8%)
- Meat: -$5.2 billion (Up by 1.8%)
- Other chemical goods: -$3.8 billion (Down by -1.7%)
- Cereals: -$3.6 billion (Up by 5.5%)
- Fish: -$3.2 billion (Down by -10.4%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$3.2 billion (Up by 4.7%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$3.1 billion (Up by 12.8%)
- Wood: -$3 billion (Down by -18.2%)
South Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil and petroleum gases, key inputs needed for its highly industrialized economy to function effectively.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive disadvantages in the international fossil fuel market, but also represent potential opportunities for South Korea to improve its position in the global economy by innovating via alternative energy supplies.
South Korean Export Companies
Wikipedia lists many of the larger international trade players from South Korea including:
- Hyundai Motor (car, truck manufacturing)
- Hynix Semiconductor (semiconductors)
- SK Holdings (oil, gas)
- LG Electronics (consumer electronics)
- Doosan Heavy Industries (heavy machinery)
- S-Oil (oil, gas)
- Lotte Chemical (specialized chemicals)
- KT&G (tobacco)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of South Korean exporters:
- LG Electronics (dryers, washing machines, refrigerators, freezers)
- Samsung Electronics (telecommunication equipment, refrigerators, freezers)
- Hankook Tire (rubber inner tubes, vehicle tires, latex)
Searchable List of South Korea’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Korea during 2019. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2018.
|Rank||South Korean Export Product||2019 Value (US$)||Change|
|3||Processed petroleum oils||$39,237,614,000||-12.7%|
|5||Phone system devices including smartphones||$17,852,846,000||+25.1%|
|6||Cruise/cargo ships, barges||$17,130,235,000||+8.5%|
|7||Computer parts, accessories||$11,388,005,000||-6.1%|
|8||TV/radio/radar device parts||$10,191,157,000||+37.4%|
|10||Machinery for making semi-conductors||$7,851,498,000||-9.4%|
|11||Electric storage batteries||$7,417,594,000||+2.6%|
|12||Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools||$6,919,530,000||-48.6%|
|14||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$5,905,987,000||-8.9%|
|15||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$5,362,190,000||+1.2%|
|16||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$5,325,724,000||+8.1%|
|17||Solar power diodes/semi-conductors||$5,237,116,000||-12.9%|
|18||Unrecorded sound media||$5,224,264,000||+101.1%|
|23||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$3,883,934,000||+1%|
|26||Rubber tires (new)||$3,312,012,000||-4.7%|
|27||Piston engine parts||$3,187,841,000||+13.8%|
|28||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$3,155,725,000||+2%|
|29||Air or vacuum pumps||$3,012,983,000||+1.7%|
|30||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$2,944,699,000||-17.4%|
|31||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$2,926,420,000||+1.1%|
|33||Other measuring/testing machines||$2,863,927,000||-6%|
|34||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$2,786,796,000||+16.7%|
|38||Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$2,339,385,000||-7%|
|39||Flat-rolled stainless steel items||$2,278,221,000||-7.2%|
|42||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,147,079,000||+16.7%|
|43||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$2,078,629,000||-2.6%|
|44||Electrical converters/power units||$2,037,544,000||-4.1%|
|45||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$2,035,488,000||+16.9%|
|46||Flat-rolled other alloy steel products||$1,968,866,000||-0.8%|
|47||Oxometal/peroxometal acid salts||$1,968,748,000||+113.5%|
|49||Electro-medical equipment (e.g. xrays)||$1,842,202,000||+2.6%|
|50||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$1,838,698,000||+0.9%|
|51||Self-adhesive plastic in rolls||$1,826,792,000||-2.8%|
|52||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$1,778,240,000||-7.1%|
|55||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$1,642,853,000||+2.3%|
|56||Aluminum plates, sheets, strips||$1,632,275,000||+1.5%|
|57||Light vessels, fire boats, floating docks||$1,631,314,000||-49.9%|
|58||Synthetic yarn woven fabrics||$1,594,295,000||-4.8%|
|59||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$1,559,338,000||+5.6%|
|60||Miscellaneous plastic items||$1,551,120,000||-5%|
|61||Interchangeable hand/machine tools||$1,547,518,000||-6.4%|
|62||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$1,536,655,000||-35.3%|
|64||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$1,499,538,000||-2.2%|
|66||Liquid pumps and elevators||$1,435,863,000||-4.7%|
|70||Electric circuit parts, fuses, switches||$1,343,247,000||-23.4%|
|71||Electric motors, generators||$1,311,808,000||+4.1%|
|75||Petroleum oil residues||$1,269,204,000||-8.6%|
|76||Electrical lighting/signaling equpment, defrosters||$1,262,799,000||+0.2%|
|78||Chemical industry products/residuals||$1,200,502,000||+2.6%|
|79||Miscellaneous iron or steel tubes, pipes||$1,166,519,000||-19.7%|
|80||Other than warp-knit fabrics||$1,164,242,000||-14%|
|82||Unprocessed synthetic staple fibers||$1,126,709,000||-18.9%|
|84||Synthetic filament yarn||$1,076,257,000||-3.5%|
|85||Computers, optical readers||$1,052,255,000||-82.5%|
|86||Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)||$1,015,983,000||-9.9%|
|87||Chemicals used in electronics||$972,899,000||-25%|
|88||Wide knit or crochet fabrics||$954,351,000||-11.1%|
|89||Ball, roller bearings||$928,697,000||-19.3%|
|90||Iron or steel pipe fittings||$927,521,000||-2.9%|
|93||Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)||$881,375,000||-7.8%|
|94||Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers||$880,053,000||-3.1%|
|96||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$865,571,000||-11.1%|
|97||Physical/chemical analysis tools||$821,944,000||-7.1%|
|99||Plastics-modified textile fabrics||$804,345,000||-5.7%|
|100||Medication mixes in dosage||$803,798,000||+1.7%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$447.5 billion or 82.5% by value for all products exported from South Korea during 2019.
In macroeconomic terms, South Korea’s total exported goods represent 23.4% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2019 ($2.320 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 23.4% for exports to overall GDP in PPP for 2019 compares to 28.3% one year earlier, seeming to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Korea’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Korea’s average unemployment rate was 4% in 2019 down from 3.842% for 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund.
South Korea’s capital city is Seoul.
See also South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies, South Korea’s Top Trade Partners and Top South Korean Trade Balances
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on January 23, 2020
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on January 23, 2020
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on January 23, 2020
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Wikipedia, List of Companies of South Korea. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on January 23, 2020