A Quick Guide to South Korea’s Maritime Industry

The maritime industry accounted for 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2020.

The maritime industry is an important economic pillar that contributes a significant amount to the GDP.  By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Globally, South Korea is leading in many sectors including being the world’s top shipbuilding country.  Busan Port, the largest domestically, is the top six container port in the world.  

The South Korean government estimated that the maritime industry accounted for 10 percent of the country’s GDP (approximately US$1.6 trillion) in 2020. This amount includes shipbuilding, shipping and port, and marine biotechnology, among others.

In 2020, for the third year in a row, South Korea has retained the title of the top country in the world with the biggest volume of shipbuilding orders.

When it comes to fisheries, a report published by Statistics Korea showed that 51,000 households are working in fisheries in 2019, which is about 2.9 percent of all households in South Korea. 

The size of seafood consumption is bigger than what is produced in the country. Its domestic consumption was estimated as 5.23 million metric tons in 2019, while domestic production was just over 3.86 metric tons in the same year. 

This makes South Korea one of the biggest importers of seafood, importing almost US$5.43 billion worth of seafood in 2019, according to the Korean Government Import Data. The biggest supplier is China with $1.28 billion, followed by Russia ($0.92 billion) and Vietnam ($0.79 billion).

Top companies in the maritime industry

  • Port and terminal business: Busan Port Facilities Management Center, Incheon Port Pier Management Corporation, Yang San ICD.
  • Marine cargo and transportation: Korea Marine Transport, HMM, Sinokor Merchant Marine.
  • Freight forwarder: Hansaeng Express, Laon Global Logistics, DG Planner.
  • Shipbuilding: Hyundai Heavy Industries, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, Samsung Heavy Industries.
  • Seafood production: Dong Won Fisheries, Sajo Industries.
  • Marine biotechnology: POSCO, LG Household & Health Care, S-Oil Corporation, SK Innovation.

Potential opportunities

The South Korean government introduced several policy measures to boost the maritime industry.  One of these measures is a five-year plan to rehabilitate the shipping sector, launched shortly after the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping, which had reduced the industry’s sales by $940 billion in 2017. 

The plan includes ensuring stable cargo volumes through cooperation between shipowners and shippers; efficient shipbuilding; and providing support for Korean shipping companies’ business management.

For the fishery sector, the South Korean Oceans and Fisheries Minister Moon Sung-hyuk said in 2019 that he will make the sector “one of South Korea’s key industries” through talks with fishermen and other experts and other concrete plans.

What’s more, during the first month of this year, the ministry also pledged to improve the efficiency in the overall maritime sector by adopting digital, smart technologies, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence.

The number of non-Korean workers in the industry is on the rise as well. For example, a 2020 report from Statistics Korea showed that there were 4,765 non-Korean workers in fisheries, which is 11.8 percent increase since 2011.

Expected challenges

However, most of the existing policies are for the benefit of domestic business owners and workers rather than for foreign entities and individuals, so it will be difficult for them to break into the maritime industry.

For example, an official of Korea Shipowners’ Association, who wanted to be known only as Lee, told Maritime Fairtrade that his organization is not responsible for initiating talks with non-Korean shipowners.

Another official from the Korea Ocean Business Corporation, who refused to be named, said that there is no organization established in South Korea to support non-Korean shipowners and other maritime businesses.

“Even our own corporation is to support South Korean shipowners,” she said during an interview with Maritime Fairtrade. “I have never heard of any maritime organizations or institutes open for foreigners in South Korea yet.” 

Another challenge is the decreasing number of young workers in the fishery industry. The number had plummeted from 912,600 in 1970 to 113,900 in 2019, according to Statistics Korea. On the other hand, the ageing index per household in the fishery industry rose from 172.7 in 2005 to 675.1 in 2019.

For exporters, the issue of tariffs on seafood imports is a variable with the increasing competition. South Korea currently imports seafood from over 100 countries, and how big the tariffs are is a factor that significantly impacts the size of exports.

The lobster exports from the United States to South Korea, for example, rose by 50 percent in 2014 as tariffs were cut to eight percent with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries. However, as Canadian lobsters benefited from the tariffs cut with the South Korea-Canada FTA a year after, the US’ market share decreased.

Image credit: Evelyn Jung / Shutterstock.com

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