South Korea’s Top 10 Exports

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Nicknamed the Land of the Morning Calm, exports from South Korea amounted to US$495.5 billion during 2016 up 36.3% since 2009 when the Great Recession kicked in but year over year down -6% from 2015. South Korea’s top 10 exports accounted for 84.5% of the overall value of its global shipments.

Based on statistics from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database, South Korea’s total Gross Domestic Product amounted to $1.929 trillion as of October 2016.

Therefore, exports accounted for about 25.7% of total South Korean economic output.

From a continental perspective, 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.

Given South Korea’s population of 50.9 million people, its total $495.4 billion in 2016 exports translates to roughly $9,729 for every resident in that country.

South Korea’s unemployment rate was 3.4% as of December 2016 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 2016. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Korea. At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level, South Korea’s number 1 exported product is electronic integrated circuitry followed by cars then refined petroleum oils.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$134.3 billion (27.1% of total exports)
  2. Vehicles: $62.7 billion (12.6%)
  3. Machinery including computers: $58.3 billion (11.8%)
  4. Ships, boats: $33.2 billion (6.7%)
  5. Plastics, plastic articles: $27.7 billion (5.6%)
  6. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $27.6 billion (5.6%)
  7. Mineral fuels including oil: $27.4 billion (5.5%)
  8. Iron, steel: $18.7 billion (3.8%)
  9. Organic chemicals: $17.9 billion (3.6%)
  10. Articles of iron or steel: $11.1 billion (2.2%)

Vehicles were the fastest-growing among the top 10 export categories, up 71.5% for the 7-year period starting in 2009.

In second place for improving export sales was South Korea’s machinery including computers which was up 52.5%.

South Korea’s number one category electrical machinery and equipment posted the third-fastest gain with a 51.3% appreciation, followed by a 50.6% gain for plastics.

Two top 10 categories decreased in value: ships and boats (down -22%); and optical, technical and medical apparatus (down -5.5%).


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 an $89.4 billion trade surplus for 2016.

  1. Electrical machinery, equipment: US$59.2 billion (Up by 67.8% since 2009)
  2. Vehicles : $47.4 billion (Up by 52.9%)
  3. Ships, boats: $31.3 billion (Down by -21.1%)
  4. Plastics, plastic articles: $17.6 billion (Up by 57.1%)
  5. Machinery including computers: $12.2 billion (Up by 221.7%)
  6. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $10.2 billion (Down by -45.8%)
  7. Organic chemicals: $7.0 billion (Up by 70.9%)
  8. Articles of iron or steel: $4.6 billion (Up by 140.6%)
  9. Rubber, rubber articles: $4.5 billion (Up by 49.9%)
  10. Iron, steel: $4.3 billion (Down by -245.6%)

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 home country South Korea’s goods trail South Korean importer spending on foreign products.

  1. Mineral fuels including oil: US-$54.3 billion (Down by -20.1% since 2009)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: -$10.8 billion (Up by 23.5%)
  3. Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$4.3 billion (Up by 174.7%)
  4. Meat: -$3.8 billion (Up by 132.1%)
  5. Other chemical goods: -$3.5 billion (Up by 2.4%)
  6. Cereals: -$3.2 billion (Up by 12%)
  7. Pharmaceuticals: -$3.1 billion (Up by 47.4%)
  8. Wood: -$3 billion (Up by 55.1%)
  9. Aluminum: -$2.8 billion (Up by 76.1%)
  10. Fish: -$2.5 billion (Up by 115.9%)

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 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 South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies, South Korea’s Top Import 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 January 25, 2017

The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on January 25, 2017

Trade Map, International Trade Centre, Accessed on January 25, 2017

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