Food Export Blog

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Food Export Blog

Food Export - Country Market Highlight: South Korea

by Sarah Larson | Feb 27, 2019

According to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Agricultural Trade Office (ATO), in 2017 the U.S. was the leading exporter of food and agricultural products to Korea with a 25% market share.

Korea relies heavily on imports to fulfill its food and agricultural needs. The entire country is about the size of the state of Indiana and over 70% of its area is mountainous terrain, unsuitable for farming.  With a population of 51 million Korea is the 3rd most densely populated country in the world among countries with over 20 million in population.  Over 90% of Koreans live in urban areas.

Therefore it is a great option for U.S. suppliers looking to start or increase their exports of food and ag products to Asia! 


Free Trade Agreement

The Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) went into effect in 2012, creating greater export opportunities for American products in Korea.

You can learn more about the specifics on the KORUS agreement and how it could affect your food and ag products on the Foreign Agricultural Service's websites dedicated page here.

Market Overview

Consumer-oriented American products continue to lead the expansion of the export market in Korea, which reflect Korean consumers’ increased demand for better value, quality and diversity.

Korea is ranked 5th as an overall destination of American consumer oriented food products
Imports of American consumer oriented food products in 2017 totaled $3.8 Billion,
A 12% increase from the previous year and the highest total on record
Korea is the 4th largest market for U.S. processed foods.
Imports of American processed food products in 2017 totaled $1.9 Billion
A 10% increase from the previous year

Learn more about the current Food Trends in South Korea first hand from our In-Market Representative for South Korea Kristie Park.

There are many advantages for U.S. suppliers exporting to Korea, we’ve highlighted several below.

Advantages for U.S. Suppliers:

  • Korea is an emerging market where new ideas and trends are eagerly tried and accepted
  • Consumers generate more diversified and sophisticated demand for food as their income level continues to rise
  • Korea by nature depends heavily on imports to satisfy its food and agricultural needs
  • Consumers maintain strong attention to new international food and consumption trends as they are further exposed to foreign food culture
  • Korean consumers pay extra attention to the value, quality and safety of food that they consume
  • Many consumers recognize the United States as a trusted origin of quality agricultural products
  • Implementation of the KORUS FTA generates new opportunities for American suppliers by reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers

South Korea - Meetings 2

Find out if South Korea is a good market for your product with our Market Builder program! Just click the link below to learn more about this extremely useful program that taps into the first hand country knowledge of our IMR’s in South Korea to benefit your exporting experience.

Market Builder – South Korea

Market Builder - South Korea

Retail Sector

By the year 2022, the retail sales in the packaged food market in Korea is expected to increase by 5%, or over $1.1 Billion.

The growth of large-scale retail businesses coupled with the evolving taste of Korean consumers translates into more opportunities for imported consumer-oriented food products in the Korean retail sector.

South Korea - Retail Tour

Some of the high growth items included in the forecast are:

  • Soups
  • Ready meals
  • Confectionery
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Processed meat and seafood
  • Processed fruit and vegetables
  • Spreads
  • Edible oils
  • Dairy products

On-line retailers are expected to play a bigger role in distributing imported foods in the future.

Best Prospect Products - Korea

Food Service Sector

An ever evolving lifestyle and dietary culture coupled with increased income level of Korean consumers have promoted a rapid growth of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional (HRI) food service sector in Korea over the last three decades.

In 2015 each Korean household spent 47.4% of its food expenditure, or 12.9% of its total spending on dining out. It is expected that spending on dining-out will continue at a steady growth in the coming years as Korean consumers face ever busier lifestyles with increased number of dual-income families and single-member households.

South Korea - Meetings 3

Strong consumer interest in new tastes, busier lifestyles, and concerns for the sluggish economy are likely to further boost the sales of these segments in the coming years

The Korean food service sector is still largely composed of small-scale, family-operated businesses.  In fact over 90% of restaurants and bars in Korea were small businesses that hired less than 5 employees as of 2014.  There is roughly 1 restaurant per every 90 Koreans.  As a result, distribution of products in the food service industry still relies heavily on the traditional channel, which involves multiple layers of small-scale middlemen distributors between the producer and the restaurant.

Food-Processing Sector

Korea maintains a strong food processing industry that manufactures a wide variety of processed food products and food additives.

South Korea - Meetings 1

There were over 26,000 food processing companies in Korea as of 2015, which generated approximately $47 Billion in sales.  Alcohol beverages and non-alcohol beverages were the leading categories produced by the Korean processors as of 2015, followed by snacks, bread & bakery products, and coffee & tea. In terms of growth, health functional foods, coffee & tea, snacks led the way in recent years.

The Korean processing industry relies heavily on imports for raw materials, intermediate ingredients and additives because of limited local supply. As a result, the Korean food processing industry offers an outstanding opportunity for imported agricultural products for processing use.

Success Stories

Now that you know a bit more about the Korean market, read about how a few of our suppliers found Export Success in the market.

South Korean Market Gets a Whole Lot Sweeter – Bassetts Ice Cream
Success Story - Bassetts

Iowa Company Utilizes Market Access Program to Expand Exports – Hawkeye Gold
Success Story - Living Water

Pennsylvania Dessert Success in South Korea – Sweet Street Desserts
Success Story - Sweet Street

Increasing Export Sales from Minnesota to Korea – J & J Corp dba Soyko International Inc.Success Story - J&J Corp

Upcoming Activities

We have a number of activities still open for registration in Korea for 2019! Read below to see which one might be a fit for you and your product.

Food Show PLUS! at Seoul Food & Hotel 2019
FSP - Seoul Food and Hotel

Food Show PLUS! at Seoul International Wine & Spirits Expo 2019
FSP -  Seoul Int Wine

Food Show PLUS! at Seoul Intl Café Show 2019
FSP - Seoul Intl Cafe

Food Show PLUS! at Food Week 2019
FSP - Food Week

Food Show PLUS! at World Food Expo 2019
FSP - World Food Expo

Focused Trade Mission to Korea for New Lifestyle US Food Products
FTM - Korea 2019

Food Export Resources

Enter New Markets

Enter New Markets
Market Builder – South Korea

Export Education

Export Education
Export Intelligence Video Series: South Korean Food Trends
Export Essentials Online


What’s New In Korea: Market Updates and Consumer Trends
The Impact of the U.S. – Korea Free Trade Agreement

Other Resources

USTR – Korea
FAS – South Korea  
Foreign Ag Service GAIN Report: Republic of Korea Export Guide Annual
Foreign Ag Service GAIN Report: Food Service – Hotel Restaurant Institutional Biennial Report
Foreign Ag Service GAIN Report: Food Processing Ingredients Update – ATO Seoul