Based on the average exchange rate for 2020, the South Korean won has depreciated by -1.9% against the US dollar since 2016 and declined by -2.1% from 2019 to 2020. The Republic of South Korea’s weaker local currency make Korean exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive.
Less than 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%).
Given South Korea’s population of 51.8 million people, its total $512.8 billion in products exported during 2020 translates to roughly $9,900 for every resident in the southeast Asian nation.
South Korea’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups categorize the highest dollar value in South Korean global shipments during 2020. South Korea’s top 10 exports are relatively concentrated, accounting for 84% of the overall value of its shipments. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall South Korean exports.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$159.7 billion (31.1% of total exports)
- Machinery including computers: $67.9 billion (13.2%)
- Vehicles: $54.2 billion (10.6%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $31.6 billion (6.2%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $25.4 billion (5%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $20.1 billion (3.9%)
- Iron, steel: $19.7 billion (3.9%)
- Ships, boats: $18.7 billion (3.7%)
- Organic chemicals: $15.4 billion (3%)
- Articles of iron or steel: $7.9 billion (1.5%)
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of South Korea’s Most Valuable Export Products further down this article.
The sole gainer from 2019 to 2020 among South Korea’s top 10 export categories was electrical machinery and equipment thanks to a 3.9% increase.
Leading the decliners were South Korean shipments of mineral fuels including oil (down -39.7%), organic chemicals (down -26.8%), iron and steel materials (down -14.5%) then items made from iron or steel (down -14.1%).
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.
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 represent 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.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$65.6 billion (Up by 2.5% since 2019)
- Vehicles: $35.9 billion (Down by -22.1%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $20.1 billion (Down by -4.7%)
- Ships, boats: $16.1 billion (Down by -9%)
- Machinery including computers: $10.5 billion (Down by -45.5%)
- Iron, steel: $8.6 billion (Up by 16.2%)
- Perfumes, cosmetics: $5.6 billion (Up by 24.8%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: $3.8 billion (Down by -15.6%)
- Organic chemicals: $3.3 billion (Down by -60.5%)
- Knit or crochet fabric: $2 billion (Down by -23.4%)
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. Albeit shrinking, 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 South Korea’s goods trail the home country’s import spending on foreign products.
- Mineral fuels including oil: -US$61.2 billion (Down by -28.2% since 2018)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$15.4 billion (Up by 4.5%)
- Meat: -$4.9 billion (Down by -5.3%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$4.4 billion (Down by -19.9%)
- Cereals: -$3.7 billion (Up by 2.7%)
- Fish: -$3.3 billion (Up by 2.3%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$2.9 billion (Down by -5.8%)
- Leather/animal gut articles: -$2.9 billion (Up by 6.2%)
- Wood: -$2.9 billion (Down by -5.2%)
- Footwear: -$2.7 billion (Down by -4.1%)
South Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil and petroleum gases, key inputs needed for its highly industrialized economy to function effectively.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Korea’s competitive disadvantages in the international fossil fuel market, but also represent potential opportunities for South Korea to improve its position in the global economy by innovating via alternative energy supplies.
South Korean Export Companies
Wikipedia lists many of the larger international trade players from South Korea including:
- Hyundai Motor (car, truck manufacturing)
- Hynix Semiconductor (semiconductors)
- SK Holdings (oil, gas)
- LG Electronics (consumer electronics)
- Doosan Heavy Industries (heavy machinery)
- S-Oil (oil, gas)
- Lotte Chemical (specialized chemicals)
- KT&G (tobacco)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of South Korean exporters.
- LG Electronics (dryers, washing machines, refrigerators, freezers)
- Samsung Electronics (telecommunication equipment, refrigerators, freezers)
- Hankook Tire (rubber inner tubes, vehicle tires, latex)
Searchable List of South Korea’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Korea during 2020. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2019.
|Rank||South Korean Export Product||2020 Value (US$)||Change|
|3||Processed petroleum oils||$23,169,236,000||-41%|
|4||Phone system devices including smartphones||$17,966,795,000||+0.6%|
|5||Cruise/cargo ships, barges||$16,528,154,000||-3.5%|
|7||Computer parts, accessories||$13,279,934,000||+16.6%|
|8||Unrecorded sound media||$10,698,973,000||+104.8%|
|9||Machinery for making semi-conductors||$8,412,590,000||+7.1%|
|10||TV/radio/radar device parts||$7,928,191,000||-22.2%|
|11||Electric storage batteries||$7,509,463,000||+1.2%|
|12||Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools||$6,527,185,000||-5.7%|
|13||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$6,115,434,000||+14.8%|
|14||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$5,837,423,000||+109.5%|
|17||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$4,952,633,000||-16.1%|
|19||Solar power diodes/semi-conductors||$4,855,387,000||-7.3%|
|20||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$4,709,837,000||-12.2%|
|23||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$3,894,751,000||+0.3%|
|26||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$3,225,690,000||+2.2%|
|28||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$2,923,796,000||-0.1%|
|30||Rubber tires (new)||$2,805,251,000||-15.3%|
|31||Air or vacuum pumps||$2,665,659,000||-11.5%|
|33||Piston engine parts||$2,577,233,000||-19.2%|
|34||Other measuring/testing machines||$2,531,247,000||-11.6%|
|35||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$2,524,972,000||-14.3%|
|37||Oxometal/peroxometal acid salts||$2,438,989,000||+23.9%|
|38||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$2,250,052,000||+10.5%|
|39||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,173,718,000||+1.2%|
|40||Other diagnostic/lab reagents||$2,173,694,000||+757.6%|
|41||Electrical converters/power units||$2,162,709,000||+6.1%|
|42||Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$2,033,987,000||-13.1%|
|43||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$2,024,917,000||-2.6%|
|46||Flat-rolled stainless steel items||$1,881,923,000||-17.4%|
|48||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$1,736,185,000||+5.7%|
|50||Flat-rolled other alloy steel products||$1,716,220,000||-12.8%|
|52||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$1,677,997,000||-8.9%|
|53||Self-adhesive plastic in rolls||$1,648,200,000||-9.8%|
|55||Light vessels, fire boats, floating docks||$1,621,872,000||-0.6%|
|57||Aluminum plates, sheets, strips||$1,570,245,000||-3.8%|
|58||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$1,549,645,000||-15.7%|
|59||Miscellaneous plastic items||$1,545,928,000||-0.3%|
|61||Interchangeable hand/machine tools||$1,538,946,000||-0.6%|
|62||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$1,528,331,000||-2%|
|63||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$1,488,284,000||-16.3%|
|65||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$1,389,128,000||-7.4%|
|67||Electric circuit parts, fuses, switches||$1,286,479,000||-4.2%|
|68||Liquid pumps and elevators||$1,246,287,000||-13.2%|
|69||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$1,241,491,000||-19.2%|
|70||Electric motors, generators||$1,224,456,000||-6.7%|
|71||Chemical industry products/residuals||$1,190,628,000||-0.8%|
|73||Electrical lighting/signaling equpment, defrosters||$1,153,117,000||-8.7%|
|76||Synthetic yarn woven fabrics||$1,060,466,000||-33.5%|
|81||Other than warp-knit fabrics||$969,408,000||-16.7%|
|82||Synthetic staple fibres, not carded, combed or otherwise processed for spinning||$965,967,000||-14.3%|
|83||Yarn wash/clean/iron machines||$959,541,000||+31.2%|
|84||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$955,006,000||+10.3%|
|85||Medication mixes in dosage||$941,354,000||+17.1%|
|86||Chemicals used in electronics||$922,276,000||-5.2%|
|88||Petroleum oil residues||$893,733,000||-29.6%|
|89||Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants||$877,628,000||+15%|
|90||Miscellaneous iron or steel tubes, pipes||$874,477,000||-25%|
|94||Iron or steel pipe fittings||$817,200,000||-11.9%|
|95||Synthetic filament yarn||$814,935,000||-24.3%|
|96||Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)||$801,850,000||-21.1%|
|99||Ball, roller bearings||$799,508,000||-13.9%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$419.5 billion or 81.8% by value for all products exported from South Korea during 2020.
In macroeconomic terms, South Korea’s total exported goods represent 22.4% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2020 ($2.293 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 22.4% for exports to overall GDP in PPP for 2020 compares to 23.4% one year earlier, seeming to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Korea’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Korea’s unemployment rate was 5.4% at January 2021, up from an average 4% in 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund.
South Korea’s capital city is Seoul.
See also South Korea’s Top 10 Major Export Companies, South Korea’s Top Trade Partners and Top South Korean Trade Balances
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on February 14, 2021
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on February 14, 2021
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on February 14, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Wikipedia, List of Companies of South Korea. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on February 14, 2021
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on February 14, 2021