Exported electronics components and cars were major factors behind South Korea’s highest trade surpluses by product. Hong Kong and China placed first and second respectively among trade partners with which South Korea won the highest positive trade balances.
South Korea’s overall trade surplus for all products equaled US$39.1 billion in 2019, up by 38.2% from a $28.3 billion surplus in 2012. Year over year, the $39.1 billion in black ink for 2019 represents a -44.2% decline from the $70 billion surplus that South Korea posted during 2018.
To put South Korea’s $39.1 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 $155.7 billion for South Korea in its global trade during 2019. Metrics listed below highlight South Korea’s strongest competitive advantages over worldwide trading partners in terms of commodities.
- Integrated circuits/microassemblies: US$43.4 billion (Up 172.4% since 2012)
- Cars: $29.3 billion (Down -22.4%)
- Processed petroleum oils: $22 billion (Down -24.1%)
- Cruise/cargo ships, barges: $16 billion (Down -43.2%)
- Automobile parts/accessories: $15.1 billion (Down -20.7%)
- Cyclic hydrocarbons: $7.9 billion (Up 28.1%)
- Electric storage batteries: $5.8 billion (Up 52.4%)
- Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools: $5.6 billion (Down -76.8%)
- Computer parts, accessories: $5.3 billion (Up 234.7%)
- TV/radio/radar device parts: $5.2 billion (Down -17.6%)
Percentage increases for South Korea’s product surpluses from 2012 to 2019 were led by computer parts or accessories (up 234.7%), integrated circuits and microassemblies (up 172.4%), electric storage batteries (up 52.4%) then cyclic hydrocarbons (up 28.1%).
The 10 major products below accumulated a deficit subtotal of -$134.4 billion for South Korea in international trade during 2019. South Korea exhibited the severest competitive disadvantages in terms of red ink from exporting and importing the following goods.
- Crude oil: -US$70.2 billion (Down -35.2% since 2012)
- Petroleum gases: -$23.7 billion (Down -29.2%)
- Coal, solid fuels made from coal: -$14.1 billion (Down -11.4%)
- Iron ores, concentrates: -$6.9 billion (Down -27%)
- Computers, optical readers: -$5.6 billion (Up 776.5%)
- Copper ores, concentrates: -$3.2 billion (Down -29.9%)
- Medication mixes in dosage: -$3.2 billion (Up 50.3%)
- Cases, handbags, wallets: -$2.5 billion (Up 80.3%)
- Aluminum (unwrought): -$2.5 billion (Down -17.5%)
- Miscellaneous aircraft, spacecraft (e.g. helicopters, launchers): -$2.4 billion (Up 31.6%)
From 2012 to 2019 South Korea’s red ink in global trade expanded at the fastest pace for three of these top products: computers including optical readers (up 776.5%), cases, handbags and wallets (up 80.3%) then medication mixes in dosage (up 50.3%).
South Korean product-specific deficits were slimmed down the most during the 7-year period for crude oil (down -35.2%), copper ores and concentrates (down -29.9%) then petroleum gases (down -29.2%).
In 2019, South Korea generated a surplus subtotal worth $131.5 billion with the following 10 trading partners.
- Hong Kong: US$30.1 billion (Down -1.3% since 2012)
- China: $29 billion (Down -45.8%)
- Vietnam: $27.1 billion (Up 165.1%)
- United States: $11.5 billion (Down -24%)
- India: $9.5 billion (Up 90.6%)
- Singapore: $6.1 billion (Down -53.8%)
- Mexico: $4.8 billion (Down -26.1%)
- Philippines: $4.7 billion (Down -4.5%)
- Poland: $4.6 billion (Up 44.8%)
- Turkey: $4.1 billion (Up 5.9%)
Four of the top country-level South Korean trade surpluses increased since 2012, led by the 165.1% gain trading with Vietnam trailed by the 90.6% uptick for India, 44.8% increase for Poland and the 5.9% acceleration for Turkey.
Leading declines in South Korea’s positive net export scores over the most recent 7-year period were Singapore (down -53.8%), China (down -45.8%), Mexico (-26.1%) and the United States (down -24%).
South Korea experienced a deficit with 81 trade partners during 2019. The following 10 trade partners created a -$104.8 billion deficit subtotal from exchanging exports and imports.
- Japan: -US$19.2 billion (Down -25% since 2012)
- Saudi Arabia: -$18.1 billion (Down -40.8%)
- Australia: -$12.72 billion (Down -7.4%)
- Qatar: -$12.68 billion (Down -48.8%)
- Germany: -$11.3 billion (Up 11%)
- Kuwait: -$9.8 billion (Down -41.3%)
- Russia: -$6.8 billion (Up 2,538%)
- Iraq: -$6.1 billion (Down -27.6%)
- United Arab Emirates: -$5.5 billion (Down -33.2%)
- Chile: -$2.8 billion (Up 24.7%)
South Korea’s county-specific trade deficits from 2012 to 2019 swelled with three of its top trade partners namely Russia (up 2,538%), Chile (up 24.7%) then Germany (up 11%).
South Korea trimmed the size of its negative trade balances with 7 other top trade partners led by Qatar (down -48.8%), Kuwait (down -41.3%), then Saudi Arabia (down -40.8%).
See also South Korea’s Top Trading Partners, South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies and South Korea’s Top 10 Exports
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on January 23, 2020
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Trading Economics, South Korea Total Gross External Debt, Summary. Accessed on January 23, 2020
Wikipedia, Economy of South Korea. Accessed on January 23, 2020