South Korea’s Top 10 Exports

South Korean flag by


Nicknamed the Land of the Morning Calm, exports from South Korea amounted to US$573.7 billion during 2017. This latest metric represents a 15.8% year-over-year uptick since 2016 and a 2.5% gain over the 5-year period starting in 2013.

Based on estimates from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, South Korea’s exported goods and services represent 43.9% of total Korean economic output or Gross Domestic Product. The analysis below focuses on exported products only.

Based on continental statistics for 2016, almost two-thirds (62.9%) of South Korea’s exports by value were delivered to other Asian countries while 16.4% were sold to North American importers. South Korea shipped another 11.4% worth of goods to Europe. Smaller percentages went to Latin America plus the Caribbean (2.8%) and Africa (2.6%).

Given South Korea’s population of 51.2 million people, its total $572.9 billion in products exported during 2017 translates to roughly $11,200 for every resident in that country.

South Korea’s unemployment rate was 3.6% as of December 2017 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 2017. South Korea’s top 10 exports are relatively concentrated, accounting for 85.5% 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 followed by cars then refined petroleum oils.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$163.1 billion (28.4% of total exports)
  2. Machinery including computers: $69.3 billion (12.1%)
  3. Vehicles: $61.9 billion (10.8%)
  4. Ships, boats: $41 billion (7.1%)
  5. Mineral fuels including oil: $36.3 billion (6.3%)
  6. Plastics, plastic articles: $31.5 billion (5.5%)
  7. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $29 billion (5.1%)
  8. Organic chemicals: $22.7 billion (4%)
  9. Iron, steel: $22.3 billion (3.9%)
  10. Articles of iron or steel: $13.1 billion (2.3%)

Among the top 10 export categories, mineral fuels including oil was the fastest-growing category via its 32.1% appreciation from 2016 to 2017.

South Korean shipments of organic chemicals were worth 26.5% more in 2017 compared to 2016. In third place for improving export sales was a highly capital-intensive category, namely ships and boats which increased in value by 23.7% year over year.

A long South Korean top 10 category diminished in value, namely exported vehicles which depreciated by -1.2% from 2016 to 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 is 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.

Overall South Korea achieved a $95.3 billion trade surplus for 2017, up 6.8% from the $89.2 billion worth of black ink generated during 2016.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$80.2 billion (Up by 35.7% since 2016)
  2. Vehicles: $46.2 billion (Down by -2.6%)
  3. Ships, boats: $39.5 billion (Up by 26.1%)
  4. Plastics, plastic articles: $20.4 billion (Up by 15.9%)
  5. Organic chemicals: $9.9 billion (Up by 42.3%)
  6. Machinery including computers: $8.8 billion (Down by -27.9%)
  7. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $7.4 billion (Down by -27.5%)
  8. Articles of iron or steel: $6.7 billion (Up by 46.2%)
  9. Iron, steel: $5.8 billion (Up by 33.8%)
  10. Rubber, rubber articles: $5 billion (Up by 10.3%)

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.


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$73.6 billion (Up by 35.7% since 2016)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: -$14 billion (Up by 29.2%)
  3. Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$4.7 billion (Up by 8.8%)
  4. Meat: -$4.4 billion (Up by 14.6%)
  5. Other chemical goods: -$3.8 billion (Up by 11.3%)
  6. Aluminum: -$3.4 billion (Up by 21%)
  7. Wood: -$3.3 billion (Up by 11.1%)
  8. Cereals: -$3.1 billion (Down by -4.3%)
  9. Fish: -$2.9 billion (Up by 14.4%)
  10. Inorganic chemicals: -$2.8 billion (Up by 54.5%)

South Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil, a key input 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.


South Korean Export Companies

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

  • 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 leading 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.

Please note that the results listed above are at the 2-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level.

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

Research Sources:
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on February 3, 2018

The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on February 3, 2018

Trade Map, International Trade Centre, Accessed on February 3, 2018

Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on October 21, 2015

Wikipedia, List of Companies of South Korea. Accessed on October 21, 2015

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