South Korea has recently posted its worst trade deficit in history, with a 13.9 billion-dollar deficit in February 2023. The country’s worsening trade balance is concerning for its economy, which heavily relies on exports.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the global economy hard, causing supply chain disruptions and demand shocks. This has also affected South Korea’s economy, which heavily relies on exports of goods such as semiconductors, automobiles, and petrochemical products.
The country’s exports have been declining for several months now, with a 16.6% decline in export dollar value in January compared to the same period in 2022. Furthermore, South Korea’s average daily export value in February fell by 14.5% for the first 10 days of the month compared to the same period last year.
South Korea’s trade deficit is also being impacted by declining exports to China, which is a major trading partner for the country. Exports from South Korea to China increased by 16.6% year-on-year in the first two months of 2022 but have since declined, with negative growth rates in September, December, and the first two months of 2023.
The decline in exports to China is due to the Chinese economy not recovering as quickly as expected. China’s retail sales decreased for three months in a row until December 2022, resulting in a decrease in demand for semiconductor-based products, which are South Korea’s most important export items in its trade with China.
The South Korean government has recognized the issue and has been taking measures to promote Korean exports and protect the interests of domestic firms. However, analysts believe that the country’s export slump may be structural, caused by prolonged U.S.-China tensions and by U.S. pressure on Korean firms exporting semiconductors to China.
Some market participants fear that the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act could have a negative impact on Korea’s semiconductor industry, which is a major driver of the country’s economy. The Act’s conditions for subsidies may infringe on management rights and trade secrets, and its demand for technology transfer and production increases may be excessive.
Despite these concerns, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Korean automobile exports rose by 47.1% year-on-year to a record high of $5.6 billion in February, and there is a possibility of a rebound in the trade balance with China as exports may pick up on the back of China’s reopening and a potential increase in demand.
South Korea’s trade deficit is a cause for concern, but there are measures being taken to address the issue. However, the country’s export slump may be structural, and external factors such as U.S.-China tensions and the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act could continue to impact the economy in the long term.