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The Trade Numerologist: The South Korean Miracle

14 May 2018 John Miller

While China has turned into the world's top exporter in the new century, and accumulated the accompanying riches and status, the second biggest benefactor of the new age of globalization has been South Korea.

One of the world's poorest countries in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation of 52 million is now a two-trillion-dollar economy, and now the world's sixth biggest exporter, up from 12th in 2000, according to data from the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas.

South Korea's leaders pushed to globalize the economy and increased exports after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Seoul vowed to integrate itself more into the global economy. It's signed over 15 free trade deals involving over 50 countries, including China and the US.

The South Korean export machine is driven by conglomerates such as Daewoo, Hyundai and Samsung. It has the world's fourth best trade balance, behind only China, Russia and Germany.

Biggest export surpluses, 2017

  • China $489.2 billion
  • Germany $281.5 billion
  • Russia $130.3 billion
  • South Korea $95.2 billion
  • Netherlands $77.7 billion
  • Brazil $67 billion
  • Italy $54.1 billion
  • Ireland $50 billion
  • Singapore $45.6 billion
  • Qatar $37.2 billion

How South Korea does in the new century will depend on how it can navigate challenges such as a belligerent North Korea and a more protectionist US.

It's off to a good start in 2018. Exports rose 17% to $182.9 billion in the first four months of the year, the biggest increase of all the major economies.

Top exporters, first four months of 2018 (pct. change v. 2017)

  • China $663 billion (+4.2%)
  • US $496.4 billion (+6.7%)
  • Germany $448.9 billion (+1.2%)
  • Japan $224.9 billion (+9.2%)
  • Netherlands $200.6 billion (+10.2%)
  • South Korea $182.9 billion (+17%)
  • Hong Kong $169.4 billion (+12.1%)
  • France $164.3 billion (-1.6%)
  • Italy $152.5 billion (+2.1%)
  • UK $142 billion (+3%)

The increase was driven by exports of technology products like semiconductors, helping the economy to expand despite a decline in tourism caused by tensions with North Korea. Samsung posted a record quarterly profit of $10.75 billion.

South Korea has ramped up exports thanks in part to a 2012 trade deal with the US. After dipping in 2016, South Korean exports rebounded in 2017.

South Korean exports, 2018-2017

  • 2007: $371.5 billion
  • 2008: $422 billion
  • 2009: $363.5 billion
  • 2010: $466.4 billion
  • 2011: $555.2 billion
  • 2012: $547.9 billion
  • 2013: $559.6 billion
  • 2014: $572.7 billion
  • 2015: $526.8 billion
  • 2016: $495.4 billion
  • 2017: $573.7 billion

President Trump ordered the 2012 Korean-US trade deal revamped as part of the protectionist platform that got him elected.

Under the new revised deal, each US auto manufacturer will be allowed to ship 50,000 vehicles a year to South Korea, up from 25,000, in exchange for Washington lifting tariffs on steel and aluminum. South Korea has been exporting way more cars to the US than it imports. The auto trade deficit in 2017 was $17.8 billion, a number US officials hope to shrink.

South Korea has increased auto imports to $15.7 billion in 2017, from $9.3 billion in 2012. The US is the second biggest seller of cars to South Korea, after Germany, and before Japan, China and the UK.

The South Korean economy is reliant on making, and exporting, cars, and also TVs, boats and semiconductors for servers.

Top South Korea exports, 2017

  • TV, sound equipment $163.1 billion
  • Cars, trucks $61.9 billion
  • Semiconductors, other electric parts $69.3 billion
  • Ships, boats, etc. $41 billion
  • Fuel $29 billion
  • Medical, photo equipment $36.4 billion
  • Iron, Steel $31.2 billion
  • Plastics $22.3 billion
  • Organic chemicals $22.1 billion
  • Articles of iron or steel $13.1 billion

South Korea is now one of the most integrated of the world's large export economies, apparent when looking at the geographical breadth of the countries that buy the most of its exports.

South Korea, top export markets, 2017

  • China $142.1 billion
  • US $68.6 billion
  • Vietnam $47.8 billion
  • Hong Kong $39.1 billion
  • Japan $29.8 billion
  • Australia $19.9 billion
  • India $15.1 billion
  • Taiwan $14.9 billion
  • Singapore $11.7 billion
  • Mexico $10.9 billion

South Korea has a minimal trading relationship with its northern neighbor. Instead, it's China that is North Korea's largest trading partner.

After its relationship with North Korea, the biggest vulnerability South Korea faces is that it is resource poor, and is the world's fifth biggest fuel importer, which is why Saudi Arabia and Qatar are two of its most important trading partners.

Top sources of South Korean imports, 2017

  • China $97.9 billion
  • Japan $55.1 billion
  • US $50.7 billion
  • Germany $19.7 billion
  • Saudi Arabia $19.6 billion
  • Australia $18.1 billion
  • Taiwan $16.2 billion
  • Vietnam $12 billion
  • Russia $11.3 billion
  • Qatar $9.6 billion

One good sign for companies doing business in the country: South Korean leaders are not disengaging with the world. In late April, the leaders of the two Koreas, Moon Jae-in, and Kim Jong-un, met in a summit meeting for the first time in 11 years. It was the first time since 1953 that a North Korean leader set foot on South Korean territory.

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email tradenumerologist@gmail.com with comments and questions.

The Trade Numerologist is the IHS Markit unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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