Officially named the Republic of Korea, South Korea is strategically located between the world-class importers namely China to its west and another Asian economic powerhouse Japan to South Korea’s east.
South Korea shipped US$512.8 billion worth of products around the globe in 2020. That figure represents roughly 2.7% of overall global exports estimated at $18.709 trillion one year earlier in 2019.
Applying a continental lens, under two-thirds (64.4%) of South Korea’s exports by value in 2020 were delivered to fellow Asian countries while 17.2% were sold to North American importers. South Korea shipped another 12.1% worth of goods to Europe. Smaller percentages went to Oceania (2.5%) led by Australia, Latin America (1.9%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean then Africa (1.6%).
South Korea’s Top Trading Partners
Below is a list showcasing 15 of South Korea’s top trading partners in terms of export sales during 2020. That is, these are countries that imported the most Korean shipments by dollar value. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total Korean exports.
- China: US$132.6 billion (25.8% of total South Korean exports)
- United States: $74.4 billion (14.5%)
- Vietnam: $48.5 billion (9.5%)
- Hong Kong: $30.7 billion (6%)
- Japan: $25.1 billion (4.9%)
- Taiwan: $16.5 billion (3.2%)
- India: $12 billion (2.3%)
- Singapore: $9.8 billion (1.9%)
- Germany: $9.6 billion (1.9%)
- Malaysia: $9.1 billion (1.8%)
- Mexico: $8.2 billion (1.6%)
- Philippines: $7.1 billion (1.4%)
- Russia: $6.9 billion (1.3%)
- Thailand: $6.85 billion (1.3%)
- Indonesia: $6.32 billion (1.2%)
Almost four-fifths (78.7%) of South Korean exports in 2020 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.
Five top importers increased purchases from South Korea from 2019 to 2020 namely Germany (up 10.2%), Taiwan (up 5.1%), Malaysia (up 2.6%), United States (up 1.1%) and Vietnam (up 0.8%).
As defined by Investopedia, a country whose total value of all imported goods is higher than its value of all exports is said to have a negative trade balance or deficit.
It would be unrealistic for any exporting nation to expect across-the-board positive trade balances with all its importing partners. Similarly, that export country doesn’t necessarily post a negative trade balance with each individual partner with which it exchanges exports and imports.
In 2020, South Korea incurred the highest trade deficits with the following countries.
- Japan: US-$20.9 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2019)
- Saudi Arabia: -$12.7 billion
- Australia: -$12.5 billion
- Germany: -$11.1 billion
- Qatar: -$7.2 billion
- Kuwait: -$5.2 billion
- Russia: -$3.7 billion
- Italy: -$3.4 billion
- Iraq: -$3.3 billion
- France: -$2.8 billion
Among South Korea’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, South Korean deficits with Italy (up 28.2%), France (up 16.3%) and Japan (up 9.2%) grew from 2019 to 2020.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive disadvantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Korea to develop country-specific strategies to strengthen its overall position in international trade.
Overall South Korea achieved a $45.2 billion trade surplus for 2020, up 15.8% from the $39.1 billion worth of black ink generated during 2019.
Based on Investopedia’s definition of net importer, a country whose total value of all imported goods is lower than its value of all exports is said to have a positive trade balance or surplus.
In 2020, South Korea incurred the highest trade surpluses with the following countries.
- Hong Kong: US$29.1 billion (country-specific trade surplus in 2019)
- Vietnam: $28 billion
- China: $23.7 billion
- United States: $16.7 billion
- India: $7.1 billion
- Marshall Islands: $4.8 billion
- Poland: $4.8 billion
- Turkey: $4.2 billion
- Philippines: $4 billion
- Hungary: $2.2 billion
Among South Korea’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, South Korean surpluses with Marshall Islands (up 47%), United States (up 44.7%) and Hungary (up 13.5%) grew at the fastest pace from 2019 to 2020.
These positive cashflow streams clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive advantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Korea to develop country-specific strategies to optimize its overall position in international trade.
Companies Servicing Korean Trading Partners
According to Korea Trade World’s directory, the following are examples of entrepreneurial companies that ship products from South Korea to its trading partners around the globe. Shown within parenthesis are examples of products that the Korean business specializes in.
- Auk Corp. (electronics transistors, diodes)
- Changeui Medical Co. Ltd (orthopedic/ambulatory/rehab appliances)
- Dana Biz Co. (home entertainment, security systems)
- Dyna Solution Co., Ltd. (metal-cutting/forming fluids, special oil)
- Kaps Korea Auto Parts Servies Co. Ltd (vehicle parts, accessories)
- Koinonia (iron ore, steel scrap)
- Manda International Co. Ltd (computer peripherals)
- P.K. Chemicals, Inc. (petrochemicals, additives)
- Rits International Korea (oil, gas)
- Segae Precision Co. Ltd (disposible syringes)
- YM Corp (mobile phone/GPS jammers)
See also South Korea’s Top 10 Exports, South Korea’s Top 10 Imports, Top South Korean Trade Balances and Top Asian Export Countries
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on February 14, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Investopedia, Net Importer Definition. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Korea Trade World, South Korean Suppliers. Accessed on February 14, 2021