Exported cars, automotive parts or accessories and electronics components were major factors behind South Korea’s highest trade surpluses by product. China and Hong Kong placed first and second respectively among trade partners with which South Korea experienced the highest positive trade balances.
South Korea’s overall trade surplus for all products equaled US$70 billion in 2018, up by 127.2% from a $30.8 billion surplus in 2011. Year over year, the $70 billion in black ink for 2018 represents a -26.6% decline from the $95.3 billion surplus that South Korea posted during 2017.
To put South Korea’s $70 billion trade surplus metric into perspective, the country’s total external debt encompassing both public and private red ink equaled -$440.6 billion at March 2019. South Korea’s external debt is the equivalent of over six times the magnitude of its positive international trade balance.
Top South Korean Trade Balances by Product and Country
The following 10 leading products generated a surplus subtotal of $194.6 billion for South Korea in its global trade during 2018. Metrics listed below highlight South Korea’s strongest competitive advantages over worldwide trading partners in terms of commodities.
- Integrated circuits/microassemblies: US$75.3 billion (Up 426.5% since 2011)
- Cars: $27 billion (Down -27.4%)
- Processed petroleum oils: $23.9 billion (Down -15.7%)
- Automobile parts/accessories: $15.6 billion (Down -9.2%)
- Cruise/cargo ships, barges: $14.3 billion (Down -60%)
- Cyclic hydrocarbons: $9.9 billion (Up 109.5%)
- Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools: $9.3 billion (Down -61.7%)
- Computer parts, accessories: $7.4 billion (Up 165.3%)
- Miscellaneous machine electrical parts: $6.2 billion (Reversing a -$262.7 million loss)
- Electric storage batteries: $5.7 billion (Up 46.6%)
Percentage increases for South Korea’s product surpluses from 2011 to 2018 encompassed integrated circuits and microassemblies (up 426.5%), computer parts or accessories (up 165.3%), cyclic hydrocarbons (up 109.5%) trailed by electric storage batteries (up 46.6%).
The 10 major products below accumulated a deficit subtotal of -$151.4 billion for South Korea in international trade during 2018. South Korea exhibited the severest competitive disadvantages in terms of red ink from exporting and importing the following goods.
- Crude oil: -US$80.4 billion (Down -20.3% since 2011)
- Petroleum gases: -$26.6 billion (Down -11.1%)
- Coal, solid fuels made from coal: -$16.5 billion (Down -9.5%)
- Machinery for making semi-conductors: -$8.2 billion (Up 8%)
- Iron ores, concentrates: -$5.4 billion (Down -52.6%)
- Copper ores, concentrates: -$3.9 billion (Down -30.7%)
- Medication mixes in dosage: -$3.1 billion (Up 50.6%)
- Aluminum (unwrought): -$2.8 billion (Down -16.6%)
- Iron or steel scrap: -$2.3 billion (Down -47.2%)
- Computers, optical readers: -$2.2 billion (Up 55.7%)
After 2011 South Korea’s red ink in global trade expanded for three of these top products: computers including optical readers (up 55.7%), medication mixes in dosage (up 50.6%) then machinery for making semi-conductors (up 8%).
South Korean product-specific deficits were whittled down notably for iron ores and concentrates (down -52.6%), iron or steel scrap (down -47.2%), copper ores and concentrates (down -30.7%) then crude oil (down -20.3%).
In 2018, South Korea generated a robust surplus subtotal worth $180 billion with the following 10 trading partners.
- China: US$55.7 billion (Up 16.6% since 2011)
- Hong Kong: $44 billion (Up 53.6%)
- Vietnam: $29 billion (Up 246%)
- United States: $14 billion (Up 20.4%)
- India: $9.7 billion (Up 104.3%)
- Philippines: $8.5 billion (Up 125.4%)
- Mexico: $6.4 billion (Down -14.2%)
- Turkey: $4.8 billion (Up 12.3%)
- Taiwan: $4.1 billion (Up 15.5%)
- Singapore: $3.9 billion (Down -67.4%)
Eight of the top country-level South Korean trade surpluses expanded since 2011, led by the 246% gain trading with Vietnam trailed by the 125.4% uptick for the Philippines and the 104.3% increase for India.
Two of South Korea’s positive net export scores declined thanks to a -67.4% surplus deterioration with Singapore and a -14.2% shrinkage with Mexico compared to amounts in 2011.
South Korea experienced a deficit with almost 80 countries during 2018. The following 10 trade partners created a -$121.5 billion deficit subtotal from exchanging exports and imports.
- Japan: -US$24 billion (Down -16.1% since 2011)
- Saudi Arabia: -$22.4 billion (Down -25.4%)
- Qatar: -$15.8 billion (Down -22.2%)
- Kuwait: -$11.5 billion (Down -25.7%)
- Germany: -$11.5 billion (Up 53.9%)
- Australia: -$11.1 billion (Down -39%)
- Russia: -$10.2 billion (Up 1,760%)
- Iraq: -$7.7 billion (Up 0.8%)
- United Arab Emirates: -$4.7 billion (Down -37.3%)
- Chile: -$2.7 billion (Up 7.9%)
South Korea’s county-specific trade deficits from 2011 to 2018 expanded with four of its top trade partners namely Russia (up 1,760%), Germany (up 53.9%), Chile (up 7.9%) and Iraq (up 0.8%).
South Korea trimmed the size of its negative trade balances with six other top trade partners led by Australia (down -39%), United Arab Emirates (down -37.3%), then Kuwait (down -25.7%).
See also South Korea’s Top Trading Partners, South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies and South Korea’s Top 10 Exports
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on August 12, 2019
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on January 20, 2019
The World Factbook, Field Listing: World, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on January 20, 2019
Trading Economics, South Korea Total Gross External Debt, Summary. Accessed on August 12, 2019
Wikipedia, Economy of South Korea. Accessed on January 20, 2019