Food Export Blog

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Food Export Blog

Food Export - Country Market Profile: South Korea

by Sarah Larson | Jul 31, 2019

Market Overview

The U.S. is the leading exporter of food and agricultural products to Korea with 25.5% of the total market share.  While there is more competition from other export-oriented countries than ever before, consumer-oriented American products continue to lead the expansion of the export market in Korea.

As with many other markets, Korean consumers are communicating an increased demand for better value, quality, and diversity in their food choices. Products and suppliers that offer good value, high quality, health/nutritional benefits, new and diversified tastes, and convenience are showing strong and continued growth in the market

USDA FAS South Korea

The Korean market reflects global food trends and there is a lot of opportunity for U.S. exporters with products fit for the market.  Especially with the current trade difficulties with China, many U.S. exporters are turning to Korea as an alternative.

In 2018 imports of American consumer-oriented food products to Korea were in growth mode totaling over $4.5 Billion, a 20% increase from the previous year and the highest total on record.  

Korea now ranks as the #4 destination for American consumer-oriented food products.

Korea is also a top market for U.S. processed food exports, which totaled over $2.6 Billion in 2018, a 6% increase from the previous year.

Korea now ranks as the 4th largest market for U.S. processed foods.

Top U.S. Exports in 2018

Advantages for U.S. suppliers of food products in the Korean market include:

  • Korea depends heavily on imports to satisfy its food and agricultural needs
  • Korean consumers maintain elevated concerns about the value, quality, and safety of food that they consume
  • Many consumers recognize the United States as a trusted origin of quality agricultural products
  • Korea is a fast-paced market where new ideas and trends are eagerly tried and accepted
  • Consumers maintain strong attention to the new international food and consumption trends as they are further exposed to foreign food culture
  • Local processing, retail, and food service industries continue to expand as consumers generate more diversified and sophisticated demand for food as their income level continues to rise

Buyer Meetings 10

Challenges for U.S. suppliers of food products include:

  • Korean consumers are generally biased toward locally produced agricultural products
  • Many consumers still maintain the idea that local products are superior in quality and safety over imported products
  • American products face elevated competition in Korea from both old and new competitors who are deploying aggressive export promotions targeting Korea
  • The high cost of shipping documentation, inspection and labeling erodes price competitiveness of imported products
  • Imported products are subject to complicated labeling and food safety standards in Korea which change frequently with the limited lead time

Despite increasing competition, the United States is expected to remain the leading supplier of food and agricultural products to Korea for the foreseeable future. 

Korea Free Trade Agreement

Free Trade Agreements

The Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) was implemented in 2012, but it is currently in negotiations to revise the agreement.  It is believed that the KORUS agreement, coupled with on-going evolvement of the Korea food market, should generate greater export opportunities for American products in Korea in the coming years.  You can learn about the KORUS agreement on the website of the United States Trade Representative.

Retail Sector

Korean retail sales in the packaged food markets are estimated to reach $27.3 Billion in 2018, which is a $2.6 Billion or 10.5% increase in the last 4 years.

High Growth Products

Grocery supermarkets continue to be the leading food retail channel in the Korean market, followed by hypermarket discount stores, convenience stores, on-line retailers, and department stores. On-line retailers and convenience stores are expected to lead the growth of food sales in the industry in the next few years as consumers put more emphasis to convenience and value than ever before.

The outlook for American food exports to the Korean retail sector is extremely positive for a diverse array of products, including: 

  • Beef, Pork, and Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Processed Vegetables
  • Fresh and Processed Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Dairy Products
  • Juices
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Condiments and Sauces
  • Processed Organic Foods
  • Bakery Goods
  • Snacks Confectionery

Exports to Korea

Food Service Sector

Growth and evolvement of the Korean economy and more urban consumer lifestyles has generated an increased demand for quality, value, and diversity in the Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional (HRI) Food Service sector.  

When last reported in 2016, sales for the Food Service sector totaled $106 Billion. Korean households’ monthly per capita spending on dining out has continued to grow for the last few years reaching $123 million in 2017.  On average a Korean household spends 47.6% of their food and beverages expenses on dining out.

Convenience is another growing consumer focus and trend in the Korean market as more and more consumers have increasingly busy lives and schedules. Delivery service is a well-developed sector in Korea as consumers don’t want to waste time in the continuous heavy traffic.  As mentioned in the Retail Sector section, the use of on-line shopping is continually increasing in the Korean market, including home-delivery by restaurants and bars, as a result of increased demand for convenience. 

Food Processing Sector

It is clearly evident in the Korean food processing sector how heavily Korea relies on imports to fulfill its food and agricultural needs.  The food processing sector utilizes the majority of the country’s imported ag products including wheat, soy, dairy, and value-added processed products.

Best Prospect Products

When last reported in 2016 the Korean food processing industry generated $67.8 Billion in sales. Popular trends in the Korea food processing sector include convenient and value-for-money food products as well as healthier and higher quality food options.  Home meal replacements, private label, and café/bakery markets are expected to continue their growth trend and the processing sector is expected to expand to meet domestic and emerging export market demands.

Market Builder

Want to explore the export potential for your products in Korea but looking to do more research before you proceed?  Take advantage of our Market Builder program which provides detailed and customized market research to help your company uncover potential in international markets!

Read more about the program on our website and in our recent blog.

South Korea Market Builder

Upcoming Activities

Explore the Korean market with Food Export by your side!

Interested in visiting the Korean market in person?  We have an upcoming Focused Trade Mission to the market happening in the Fall and we are offering our Food Show PLUS! tradeshow enhancement services at a variety of tradeshows throughout the rest of 2019. 

Focused Trade Mission to Korea for New Lifestyle US Food Products

Focused Trade Mission to Korea

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

Seoul International Wine and Spirits Expo

Food Show PLUS! at Seoul Intl Café Show 2019

Seoul International Cafe Show

Food Show PLUS! at Food Week 2019

Food Week 2019

Food Show PLSU! At World Food Expo 2019

World Food Expo 2019

Success Stories

Hear from other suppliers who have gone before you and found significant success in the Korean market.  Read their Success Stories below.

South Korean Market Gets A Whole Lot Sweeter

Success Story - Bassetts

Iowa Company Utilizes Market Access Program to Expand Exports

Success Story - Living Water


Food Export Resources

Check out some of the resources we have available online for U.S. suppliers looking to export to Korea.

Enter New Markets

Enter New Markets
Market Builder – South Korea



Export Education

Export Education
South Korea Country Profile
South Korean Food Trends

Webinars

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

Other Resources

Don’t forget that the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has a variety of helpful reports and information available for free on their website.  We’ve linked some of the most relevant reports about Korea below.