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Republic of Korea: Market Profile

Major Economic Indicators

Table: Major economic indicators (Korea)
Table: Major economic indicators (Korea)

Recent Developments

  • The Korean economy grew by 3.6% YOY in Q3 2017 following a 2.7% gain in Q2 2017. Real GDP is expected by the BOK to expand by 3.0% in 2017 on the back of exports growth and increased government spending.

  • In the first nine months of 2017, Korea’s exports increased by 18.5% YOY to US$430.2 billion, while imports also rose by 20.1% to US$354.9 billion.

  • China and Korea implemented their bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in December 2015 after almost three years of talks. The FTA aimed to eliminate about 70% to 90% of import tariffs within the next 10 to 20 years.

  • Hong Kong’s total exports to Korea increased by 4.5% YOY to US$5.3 billion in the first nine months of 2017, while imports from Korea grew by 32.3% YOY to US$22.9 billion.

Current Economic Situation


The Korean economy grew by 3.6% year-on-year (YOY) in the third quarter of 2017, following a 2.7% expansion in the previous quarter. Q3 growth was led by a 6.8% growth of merchandise exports, amid the strong demand on semiconductors, chemical products and motor vehicle. Yet, rising Sino-Korean tensions as a result of China’s opposition to the US deployment of a missile defense system on Korean soil have negatively affected inbound tourism and retail sales. 

Following the impeachment of former President Park, Korea’s political situation has largely stabilised with President Moon taking office in May 2017. In a bid to tackle youth unemployment and boost economic growth, Korea’s parliament in July 2017 approved an extra budget spending of nearly US$10 billion to fund the new president’s job creation and welfare policies, which he marked as a complete paradigm shift. The stimulation package is expected to add 71,000 jobs to the public sector and another 15,000 jobs to the private sector. In October 2017, the Bank of Korea (BOK) raised its growth forecast for the whole year of 2017 to 3.0%, up from its earlier prediction of 2.8%, on the back of moderate recovery in exports and an increase in government spending.

Korea’s consumer price inflation (CPI) rose 1.8% year-on-year (YOY) in October 2017, according to Statistics Korea. This was marginally below the BOK’s 2% CPI target, largely due to a drop in fresh vegetable prices.

In response to weak economic growth, the Korean government has strengthened its efforts to develop the country’s services sector, putting more emphasis on the creative industry to transform the country from a manufacturing powerhouse to a technology-driven creative economy. In supporting this initiative, Manufacturing Innovation 3.0 was launched in 2014 to upgrade industry through manufacturing innovation. The government also lent its support to businesses with an eye on high-tech fields including 5G telecommunications, cloud computing, and biotechnology. In 2017, Korea’s combined budget for R&D will reach 19.5 trillion won (US$17 billion), with a large portion allocated to securing new growth engines in the “fourth industrial revolution”, characterised by a fusion of cutting-edge technologies such as big data and Internet of Things (IoT).

External Trade

Korea is one of the Asian economies with high trade dependency, with total foreign trade accounting for about 80% of the country's GDP. In the first nine months of 2017, Korea’s exports increased by 18.5% YOY to US$430.2 billion thanks to a recovery in global trade. China was Korea’s largest export partner and accounted for about 24% of total exports. Other major export destinations of Korea included the US (12% of share), Vietnam (8%), Hong Kong (6%), and Japan (5%). Meanwhile, Korea’s imports also rose by 20.1% YOY to US$354.9 billion during the same period. Major sources of imports to Korea were China (20%), Japan (12%) and the US (11%).

To support the export sector, the Korean government in 2016 announced plans to offer 4.8 trillion won (US$4 billion) in trade-related financing, lower export insurance premiums and expand tax incentives for SME exporters. It is reported that Korean government has set aside 372.9 billion won (US$330 million) of funding in 2017 for oversea marketing events and trade missions.

To bolster less-developed regions outside Seoul through private investment, the Korean government announced a series of pro-investment measures in 2014, which included deregulations and tax incentives. For example, development restrictions will be lifted to allow the construction of commercial facilities in green-belt areas. In 2015, the BOK enlarged the Bank Intermediated Lending Support Facility by 5 trillion won (US$4.5 billion), providing additional financial support, such as trade financing and credit loans to SMEs and tech start-ups. In 2017, a new set of measures were introduced to spur investment, which include creating a tourism brand in the Southern coastal area, allowing the distribution of draft beer made by microbreweries and using apartment complexes’ parking lots for paid parking space during daytime.

Investment Policy

Invest Korea (IK) is Korea's national investment promotion agency, established as part of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) to support the entry and establishment of foreign businesses in Korea. To promote inward foreign direct investment (FDI), the Korean government offers various incentives including cash grants and tax breaks. In 2015, the government set a goal to increase FDI by 60% to US$30 billion by 2017 from US$19 billion in 2014 through such measures as easing regulations and focusing support on five industry sectors including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, industrial materials, petroleum products and food processing.

In 2016, the Financial Services Commission (FSC) announced its plan to introduce an Omnibus Account in 2017, an integrated and simplified registration system for foreigners to make it easier for foreign investors to trade locally-listed stocks in the Korean stock market. In the past, foreign investors had to open an account not only in Korean banks but also in Korean securities companies to make an investment in Korean stocks and they had to handle all financial transactions themselves.

Moreover, there are two types of Foreign Investment Zones (FIZs) designated for foreign-invested SMEs and large foreign-invested companies respectively. Land purchase, rent subsidies and tax incentives are offered in those FIZs. Foreign investment on service industries including tourism, logistics and other business services are also encouraged. Besides, qualified foreign investment can be exempted from customs duties, VAT, and special excise tax on imported capital goods for the first three years.

In the first nine months of 2017, Korea’s inward FDI flow reached US$8 billion, up 9.1% from a year earlier, according to Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. Major sources of FDI included Japan, the US and the EU.

Trade Policy

In the past, Korea's trade policy placed heavy emphasis on import control and export growth promotion. The Korean government has revised its trade policy to a more neutral stance in recent years, which includes, among other things, forging free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries. Korea has entered into FTAs with over 50 economies including the EU, the US, ASEAN, Singapore and China. The Korea-China FTA, implemented in December 2015, has significant implications for both sides, as it aims to eliminate more than 70% and 90% of import tariffs within the next 10 and 20 years respectively. Korea’s bilateral trade with China reached US$211 billion in 2016. In comparison, bilateral trade with the US and EU in the same year were, respectively, US$110 billion and US$91 billion. A Closer Economic Partnership Agreement between Korea and India was implemented in 2010.

On the other hand, Korea is negotiating FTAs with economies including Japan, Mexico and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). The trilateral free trade agreement between Korea, Japan and China has been under negotiations since 2012, and the 12th round of negotiations was held in April 2017. In addition, Korea is engaged in negotiations on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed FTA among 16 countries including 10 ASEAN countries, Australia, China, India, Japan and New Zealand.

In 1997, following the amendment of the Customs Act and its Enforcement Decree, Korea simplified import procedures and required documentation. Most goods can now be imported without licences, except items restricted for health or security reasons. All of Hong Kong's leading export products can be freely imported into Korea.

Most duties are assessed on an ad valorem basis. For non-agricultural products, about 90% of goods are charged at tariff rates from 0% to 10%. Tariff rates for leading import items (e.g. electrical machinery) from Hong Kong range between 0% and 13%.

In addition to tariffs, imports are also subject to other taxes, including a value-added tax (VAT). The VAT rate on imports is 10% of the CIF value plus customs levies. In addition, a special excise tax, which ranges from 2% to 20%, is levied on certain luxury and durable consumer items.

The Korean government still maintains a safeguard mechanism, in which high tariffs are imposed on certain products, protecting local industries which are vulnerable to global competition. For example, certain agricultural products are subjected to duties above 100%. Meanwhile, some non-agricultural products, such as leather and footwear are taxed up to 16%.

Hong Kong's Trade with Korea

Korea was the tenth largest export market and the fifth largest import source of Hong Kong in the first nine months of 2017. In the same period, Hong Kong's total exports to Korea increased by 4.5% YOY to US$5.3 billion, while Hong Kong's imports from Korea grew by 32.3% YOY to US$22.9 billion. As such, Hong Kong ran a trade deficit against Korea amounting to US$17.5 billion. Major Hong Kong export items to Korea included semiconductors, electronic valves and tubes (US$1.5 billion, 28.7% of total, -6.1% YOY), telecom equipment and parts (US$913 million, 17.1% of total, +17.2% YOY), computers (US$475 million, 8.9% of total, +59.1% YOY).

In the same period, Hong Kong major imported items from Korea included semiconductors, electronic valves and tubes (US$14.7 billion, 64.2% of total, +39.2% YOY), telecom equipment and parts (US$1.1 billion, 4.9% of total, +14.3% YOY) and parts& accessories of office machines/computers (US$875 million, 3.8% of total, +284.5% YOY).

Table: Hong Kong trade with Korea
Table: Hong Kong trade with Korea

Korea's Economic Involvement in Hong Kong

Korea is actively involved in the Hong Kong economy. According to the Hong Kong Census & Statistics Department, there were 148 Korean companies which had established regional headquarters, regional or local offices in Hong Kong as of June 2017.

In 2015, Korea was Hong Kong’s 19th largest FDI contributor. Korea’s cumulative FDI investment in Hong Kong amounted to US$3.3 billion, according to the latest available figures from the Census and Statistics Department. Korean companies in Hong Kong are involved in financial services (e.g. Korea Exchange Bank, Daewoo Securities, Woori Bank and Hana Bank), logistics and transportations (e.g. Hyundai Merchant Marine and Korea Travel Service), as well as cosmetics (Laneige, Etude House and Sulwhasoo, etc.).

In the first nine months of 2017, Korean visitors to Hong Kong increased 6.4% to 1,089,630, accounting for 2.6% of total visitors.

Content provided by Picture: Winnie Tsui
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