According to the statistics from Korean Customs Service, Korean food product exports reached a record high with USD 4.3 billion shipments in 2020. This largest-ever increase in food exports (14.6%) came despite an overall decrease in total Korean export goods. In particular, the export of rice products and ramen soared by 53.3% to USD 37 million and 29.9% to USD 604 million respectively.
Why did Korean food products become so popular despite decreasing Korean export goods in the pandemic? Korean Customs Service attributes the increasing sales to the pandemic-induced demand for quick meals you can prepare at home, growing popularity of fermented food, and recognition of products featured in Korean multimedia content. Global sale of instant noodles jumped 29.2% after characters in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite cooked them. Similarly, the sale of kits for making confections featured in the recent Netflix drama Squid Game increased by 270%, according to G-Market.
South Korea began exporting food products in the 1960s, starting with squid, rice, and seaweed. Later in the decade, instant noodle-maker Samyang began exporting processed food for Koreans living abroad. The 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup bolstered interest in Korean food products, creating demand for kimchi, ramen, and alcohol globally.
Food exports only accounted for 1.2% of Korea’s total exports in 2019 – a relatively low figure compared to other countries where on average 7.7% of sales abroad are made of foodstuff. Korea’s most critical export sector is semiconductors, accounting for 17.9% of total sales. Nonetheless, Korean food product exports have been increasing consistently. Another sector that has experienced similar successes riding on the country’s growing cultural presence on the global stage in recent years is cosmetics. Korean cosmetic products also recorded the highest-ever export figure – a major change in fortunes for a sector that recorded trade deficits until 2014.
This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.
Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Janet Hong, Yubin Huh, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture from the flickr account of Robyn Lee