Based on statistics from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database, South Korea’s total Gross Domestic Product amounted to $1.849 trillion in 2015.
Therefore, exports accounted for about 28.5% of total South Korean economic output.
Given South Korea’s population of 49.1 million people, its total $526.9 billion in 2015 exports translates to roughly $10,728 for every resident in that country.
South Korea’s unemployment rate was 3.5% in 2014, the latest data available as of article publication.
South Korea’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South Korean global shipments during 2015. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Korea.
- Electronic equipment: US$138.4 billion (26.3% of total exports)
- Vehicles: $69.1 billion (13.1%)
- Machines, engines, pumps: $62.1 billion (11.8%)
- Ships, boats: $38.4 billion (7.3%)
- Oil: $33.2 billion (6.3%)
- Medical, technical equipment: $32.5 billion (6.2%)
- Plastics: $28.2 billion (5.4%)
- Iron and steel: $20.2 billion (3.8%)
- Organic chemicals: $18.2 billion (3.5%)
- Iron or steel products: $11.2 billion (2.1%)
Electronics were the fastest-growing among the top 10 export categories, up 16.7% for the 5-year period starting in 2011.
In second place for improving export sales was South Korea’s machinery which was up 4.1%.
South Korean automobile exports posted the third-fastest gain with a 2.9% appreciation, followed by the modest 1.8% appreciation for plastics.
All other top 10 categories decreased in value, ranging from a -37.5% drop for oil to the -4.5% deceleration for iron or steel products.
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.
- Electronic equipment: US$60.6 billion (Up by 24.2% since 2011)
- Vehicles: $54 billion (Down by -6.7%)
- Ships, boats: $36.1 billion (Down by -30.3%)
- Plastics: $18.3 billion (Up by 8.3%)
- Machines, engines, pumps: $15.7 billion (Up by 51.7%)
- Medical, technical equipment: $14.4 billion (Down by -26%)
- Organic chemicals: $6.2 billion (Down by -18.3%)
- Iron and steel: $4.7 billion (Down by -653.4%)
- Rubber: $4.4 billion (Down by -17.3%)
- Knitted or crocheted fabric: $3.4 billion (Down by -17.8%)
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. In turn, these cashflows indicate South Korea’s strong competitive advantages under the electronics 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 home country South Korea’s goods trail South Korean importer spending on foreign products.
- Oil: -US$70.2 billion (Down by -41.8% since 2011)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$11.9 billion (Down by -43.7%)
- Clothing (not knit or crochet): -$4.4 billion (Up by 39.1%)
- Cereals: -$3.7 billion (Down by -19.8%)
- Meat: -$3.6 billion (Up by 5.7%)
- Other chemical goods: -$3.2 billion (Down by -21.2%)
- Aluminum: -$3.1 billion (Down by -6.7%)
- Wood: -$3 billion (Up by 20.8%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$2.8 billion (Down by -3.1%)
- Fish: -$2441.3 million (Up by 49.6%)
South Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude petroleum, a key input for its refined oil and gas operations.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive disadvantages in the international energy market, but also represent potential opportunities for South Korea to improve its position in the global economy through innovation.
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 smaller 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 Trade Wars: China Versus South Korea, South Korea Major Product Supply Advantages, South Korea’s Top Import Partners and Highest Value South Korean Export Products
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on January 22, 2016
The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on January 22, 2016
Trade Map, International Trade Centre, www.intracen.org/marketanalysis. Accessed on January 22, 2016
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