Republic of Korea
Republic of Korea: Market Profile
South Korea has experienced remarkable success in combining rapid economic growth with significant reductions in poverty. The government of South Korea's policies resulted in real GDP growth averaging 10% annually between 1962 and 1994. This spectacular performance was fuelled by annual export growth of 20% in real terms, while savings and investment rose sharply above 30% of GDP. South Korea is now the world’s 15th largest economy.
Source: World Bank
2. Major Economic/Political Events and Upcoming Elections
The centre-left candidate Moon Jae-in is elected president in a landslide, and pledges to solve the North Korean crisis by diplomatic means.
North and South Korea agree to march under the same flag at the following month's Winter Olympics, representing a thaw in relations.
Kim Jong-un becomes first North Korean leader to enter the South when he meets President Moon Jae-in for talks at the Panmunjom border crossing. The joint summit was the first meeting between leaders of North Korea and South Korea since 2007. In a joint declaration issued after the summit, the two leaders agreed to pursue a permanent peace regime and the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Sources: BBC country profile – Timeline, BMI Political Risk Analysis
3. Major Economic Indicators
Note: f = forecast
Sources: IMF, World Bank
4. External Trade
4.1 Merchandise Trade
Sources: WTO, World Bank WITS database
4.2 Trade in Services
5. Trade Policies
- South Korea has been a WTO member since 1 January 1995 and a member of GATT since 14 April 1967.
- 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 16 FTAs covering over 50 economies including the EU, the US, ASEAN, Singapore and China, and is engaged in negotiations for a further nine, including with Ecuador, Mexico, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Indonesia, Israel and Japan, among others.
- In terms of trade barriers, South Korea continues a process of economic liberalisation and deregulation, although it also maintains a tariff quota system designed to stabilize domestic commodity markets. Customs duties can be adjusted every six months, within the limit of the basic rate. South Korea also has a flat 10% VAT on all imports, with a special excise tax of 10-20% levied on the importation of certain luxury items and durable consumer goods. Tariffs and taxes must be paid in Korean won within 15 days after goods having cleared customs. Average import tariff rates currently stand at 5.2% and are the joint-highest in the East and South East Asia region alongside Laos.
- Some of the major barriers to trade in South Korea involve the rice industry, with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs implementing a number of measures to support the domestic rice industry, including rice farmer income subsidies and a hefty rice import tariff. In January 2015, the government of South Korea implemented a 513% tariff on over-quota imported rice, affecting partners such as China, the US, Japan, Australia and India.
- To support the export sector, the Korean government in 2016 announced plans to offer 4.8 trillion won (USD4 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 (USD330 million) of funding in 2017 for oversea marketing events and trade missions. In its 2018 economic policies, the Korean government has committed more support for SME exporters.
- The trilateral free trade agreement between Korea, Japan and China has been under negotiations since 2012, and the 13th round of negotiations was held in March 2018. 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 or individual consumption 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%.
- South Korea's average import tariff rate of 5.2% is the joint-highest in the East and South East Asia region. The South Korean government maintains a tariff quota system designed to stabilize certain domestic commodity markets. Imports of rice (which also have an import quota of 409,000 tons a year) and crude oil in particular are subject to tariffs, significantly increasing the costs of imported inputs for businesses in these industries. Nevertheless, South Korea is continuing its process of economic liberalization, maintaining streamlined trade procedures that minimize overall import costs.
- In July 2014, an individual consumption tax was imposed on imported coal used for power generation. The purpose of the measure is to tackle the excessive electricity consumption and to rationalize the domestic energy price structure. At the same time, taxes for other alternative imported fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), kerosene and propane were lowered.
Source: WTO – Trade Policy Review
6. Trade Agreement
6.1 Multinational Trade Agreements
- The Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (also called the KAFTA). South Korea is Australia's fourth largest trading partner, and under this agreement, tariffs on 84% of Australia's current exports to Korea are eliminated; tariffs on 96% of current exports will be eliminated within ten years; and by the time the agreement is fully implemented, tariffs on 99.8% of Australia's current exports to Korea will be eliminated. Products representing about 0.2% of Australia's current exports to Korea will be excluded from the agreement: rice; milk powder; honey; abalone; ginger; apples; pears; and walnuts.
- The South Korea-US FTA (KORUS) came into force in 2012 and is the US's first FTA with a major Asian economy and its largest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Under the FTA, almost 80% of consumer and industrial products exported to the US from Korea became duty free on March 15 2012, and this had expanded to 95% by 2017. Most remaining tariffs would be eliminated in the medium term. For a broad range of agricultural products, the FTA eliminates tariffs and quotas, with almost two-thirds (by value) of Korea's agriculture imports from the US becoming duty free. For services, the FTA provides meaningful market access commitments that extend across virtually all major service sectors, including greater and more secure access for international delivery services and the opening up of the Korean market for foreign legal consulting services. In the area of financial services, the FTA increases access to the Korean market and ensures greater transparency and fair treatment for US suppliers of financial services. The FTA addresses non-tariff barriers in a wide range of sectors and includes strong provisions on competition policy, labour, the environment, transparency and regulatory due process.
- 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 USD240 billion in 2017. In comparison, bilateral trade with the US and EU in the same year were, respectively, USD119 billion and USD111 billion.
- A Closer Economic Partnership Agreement between Korea and India was implemented in 2010.
- The EU-South Korea FTA entered into force in July 2011, with an aim to eliminate duties for industrial and agricultural goods in a progressive, step-by-step approach. The majority of import duties were already removed when the FTA entered into force on July 1 2011. On July 1 2016, import duties were eliminated on all products except for a limited number of agricultural products. In addition to eliminating duties on nearly all goods trade, the FTA addresses non-tariff barriers to trade with specific focus on the automotive, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and electronics sectors.
A Japan-Republic of Korea Free Trade Agreement (KJFTA) will be of benefit to businesses due to the high trade volumes between the two countries and will create potential for businesses to explore new markets in the region. The scope of the KJFTA can be categorised into three main areas: trade liberalisation and market access through concessions for trade in goods and services; enhanced cooperation for non-trade areas; and institutional arrangements centred on a dispute settlement mechanism.
Source: WTO Regional Trade Agreements database
7. Investment Policy
7.1 Foreign Direct Investment
7.2 Foreign Direct 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.
- Following the onset of the financial crisis in 2008/2009, the Korean government took further active steps to promote FDI. In 2008-2010, corporate taxes were reduced, administrative procedures streamlined and the maximum amount of foreign capital that can be lent or borrowed without reporting the transaction was increased. In addition to strengthening the rights of foreign investors, the South Korean government has also taken measures to simplify procedures for mergers and acquisitions, reform bankruptcy laws, introducing short-term measures to facilitate asset transfer, permitting the establishment of holding companies and allowing foreign investment companies to freely acquire land without limitations on the size and use of land.
- 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 (USD4.5 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.
- The Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) administers tax and other incentives to stimulate advanced technology transfer and investment in high-technology services. There are four types of special areas for foreign investment - Free Economic Zones (FEZ), Free Trade Zones (FTZs), Free Investment Zones (FIZ) and Tariff Free Zones (TFZ) - where favourable tax incentives and other support for investors are available. A number of highly favourable trade and investment opportunities - especially for large, hi-tech businesses - offer a tax reduction or exemption for five to seven years, a rent reduction of 50-100% and cash grants of not less than 5% of the invested amount. The FEZs differ from other zones designated for foreign investment in their focus on creating a comprehensive living and working environment with biotechnology, aviation, logistics, manufacturing, service and other industrial clusters, as well as international schools, recreational facilities and international hospitals. There are also six foreign-exclusive industrial complexes in Korea. These are located in different parts of the country and designed to provide inexpensive plant sites, with the national and local governments providing assistance for leasing or selling in such sites at discounted rates.
- 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.
- Korea’s Financial Services Commission (FSC) introduced the omnibus account system for foreign investors in stocks trading in March 2017, which is 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. The omnibus account was extended to cover bonds and derivatives trading in June 2017.
- The Foreign Investment Promotion Act (FIPA) is the basic law pertaining to foreign investment in South Korea. FIPA and related subordinate regulations categorise business sectors as being either open, conditionally or partly restricted, or closed to foreign investment. Restrictions remain for 27 industrial sectors, three of which (nuclear power generation, radio broadcasting and television broadcasting) are completely closed to foreign investment.
- The South Korean government reviews restricted sectors from time to time for possible further openings. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE), the number of industrial sectors open to foreign investors is well above the OECD average. Currently, restrictions on foreign ownership of public corporations remain, although ownership limit levels have been raised. Foreign ownership is limited to 49% for government-controlled utilities, such as telecommunications and cable networks.
- The state-owned Korea Land and Housing Corporation is given preferential access to developing state-owned real estate projects, notably housing.
- Overall, restrictions on foreign ownership remain for 27 industrial sectors, though nuclear power generation, radio and television broadcasting are entirely closed to foreign investment. The South Korean government does however review the list of restricted sectors from time to time for possible changes. Relevant ministries must approve investments in conditionally or partly restricted sectors. Most applications are processed within five days; cases that require consultation with more than one ministry can take 25 days or longer. Korea's procurement processes comply with the WTO Government Procurement Agreement, but some implementation problems remain.
Sources: WTO – Trade Policy Review, The International Trade Administration (ITA), U.S. Department of Commerce
7.3 Free Trade Zones and Investment Incentives
|Free Trade Zone/Incentive Programme||Main Incentives Available|
|Foreign-exclusive industrial complexes in Gyeonggi Province (Hyungok, Pyosung, Chupal, and Hansan)||These are designed to provide inexpensive plant sites, with the national and local governments providing assistance for leasing or selling in such sites at discounted rates.|
|Free Economic Zones (FEZ): Incheon (near Incheon Airport, to be completed in 2020); Busan/Jinhae (in South Gyeongsan Province, to be completed in 2020); Gwangyang Bay (in South Gyeongsan Province, to be completed in 2020); Yellow Sea (in South Chungcheong Province, to be completed 2020); Daegu/Gyeongbuk (in North Gyeongsan Province, to be completed in 2020); Saemangeum/Gunsan (in North Jeolla Province, to be completed in 2020); East Sea (in Donghae and Gangrung); and Chungbuk (in North Chungcheong Province)||The FEZs differ from other zones designated for foreign investment in their focus on creating a comprehensive living and working environment with biotechnology, aviation, logistics, manufacturing, service and other industrial clusters as well as international schools, recreational facilities, and international hospitals.|
Foreign invested enterprises in FEZs are exempted from corporate income tax and income tax for five years (100% for first 5 years; 50% for the following 2 years) and import tariffs are exempted for three years on capital goods. This applies to foreign investment of USD10mn for manufacturing and tourism sectors, or USD5mn in logistics and medical fields.
|Free Trade Zones: Donghae, Suncheon, Gunsan, Daebul, Masan, Ulsan, Gimje, Yulchon, and seven logistics areas near airports and harbours||Companies may pursue their business with government support, but without the usual legal requirements such as approval procedures for export and imports and customs duties. Neither VAT nor tariffs are applicable on foreign goods or services exchanged among tenants or on domestic goods carried into a free trade zone.|
Tenants enjoy low rentals and subsidies for facilities, employment and training.
Administrative agents from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are stationed nearby to provide one-stop services and support for all administrative affairs such as factory construction and registration, foreign investment, tax breaks and import/export paperwork. There is also rent-free lease of land and standardised factories for 10 years for foreign invested companies, of which foreign ownership is at least 30%, or the largest shareholder is a foreigner, and up to 75% exemption if the investment is over USD5mn.
There are tax breaks available for manufacturing investment of more than USD10mn for five years (100% for first three years; 50% for the following two years).
Tax breaks of seven years for the Masan Free Trade Zone, advanced technology industries and industry-support services (100% for first five years; 50% for the following two years) and local taxes (acquisition tax, registration tax) at 100% for 15 years.
8. Taxation – 2017
- Value Added Tax: 10%
- Corporate Income Tax: 10-25%
Source: PwC Taxes at a Glance 2017
8.1 Important Updates to Taxation Information
The South Korean government announced a series of new tax measures in August 2017 that would come into effect in for fiscal years commencing after January 1 2018. The most important of these for businesses is the addition of a new corporate income tax rate of 25% for taxable income over KRW300bn (approximately USD270mn). The income tax rate for all income below KRW200bn remains set at 22%, but the new rate will somewhat weigh on profit margins for larger businesses based in the country.
8.2 Business Taxes
|Type of Tax||Tax Rate and Base|
|Corporate Income Tax||– 10% on operating profits up to KRW200mn|
– 20% on operating profits between KRW200mn-KRW20bn
– 22% on operating profits between KRW20bn-KRW200bn
– 25% on operating profits in excess of KRW300bn
|Local Income Tax||– 1% on operating profits up to KRW200mn|
– 2% on operating profits between KRW200mn-KRW20bn
– 2.2% on operating profits in excess of KRW20bn
|Value Added Tax||10% on value of the products|
|Social security contributions||Minimum of 17.37 % on taxable earnings (shared equally by employer and employee), where this includes accident insurance which ranges from 0.6% to 34% dependent on industry.|
|Other tax information||A flat rate of 7% applies to small- and medium-sized enterprises and large companies within the four-year grace period; after this grace period, an 8% rate applies for large companies for the following three years and a 9% rate applies for two additional years. Even if a taxpayer benefits from tax incentives, such as tax credits or exemptions, the taxpayer should pay at least the minimum tax. The minimum tax is calculated as the tax base (before applying tax credits or exemptions subject to the minimum tax) multiplied by minimum tax rates. Some tax incentives may not be utilised where the tax liabilities after the tax incentives are below the minimum tax.|
9. Foreign Worker Requirements
9.1 Localisation Requirements
Employers who wish to employ low-skilled foreign labour must first demonstrate that they have spent at least 14 days (seven days in some cases) attempting to find Korean workers by requesting help from public employment centres.
9.2 Foreign Worker Permits
Since 2002, South Korea has taken a number of steps to overhaul its labour migration system. This resulted in gradually loosened controls and a declining unauthorized population. In 2003, the Korean government introduced the Employment Permit System (EPS), a guest worker scheme that provides a framework for the entry of temporary low-skilled foreign labour. EPS is divided into two subsystems: the General EPS based on Memoranda of Understanding drawn up between the South Korean government and sending countries (16 countries in 2017) and the Special Case EPS granting foreign nationals of Korean ancestry visiting worker status so they can get a job in South Korea. Skilled workers, including researchers and language teachers, are welcome to temporarily work and live in South Korea. When they have valid employment contracts, skilled workers can easily acquire work visas and can renew their visa status. Some international talents, including technology workers, can move to Korea through an express procedure. Under the General EPS, Korean employers can enter into employment contracts with foreign workers who pass a Korean language proficiency test and are determined to be in good health.
9.3 Visa/Travel Restrictions
Foreign workers brought in under the General EPS receive E-9 nonprofessional employment visa status, while those under the Special Case EPS are given H-2 visiting worker status.
H-2 visa holders do not need an employment contract before entering Korea, and there are no restrictions on employment sectors and workplace changes for them.
E-9 visa holders on the other hand need an employment contract, are tied to their employer, and are restricted to certain sectors, including agriculture, construction, fishing, and manufacturing.
Family members of low-skilled foreign workers are not allowed to settle in Korea, a restriction designed to dissuade workers from permanent settlement in South Korea.
10.1 Sovereign Credit Ratings
|Rating (Outlook)||Rating Date|
|Standard & Poor's||AA (stable)||08/08/2016|
Sources: Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings
10.2 Competitiveness and Efficiency Indicators
|Ease of Doing Business Index ||4/189||5/190||4/190|
|Ease of Paying Taxes Index||29/189||31/190||24/190|
|Logistics Performance Index ||24/160||N/A||N/A|
|Corruption Perception Index||51/176||52/180||N/A|
|IMD World Competitiveness||29/61||29/63||N/A|
Sources: World Bank, IMD, Transparency International
10.3 BMI Risk Indices
|Economic Risk Index Rank||1/202|
|Short-Term Economic Risk Score||81.9||82.5||84.4|
|Long-Term Economic Risk Score||78.9||79.5||80.9|
|Political Risk Index Rank||25/202|
|Short-Term Political Risk Score||74.8||71.7||70.4|
|Long-Term Political Risk Score||84.2||82.5||82.5|
|Operational Risk Index Rank||27/201|
|Operational Risk Score||67.5||70||70.3|
Source: BMI Research
10.4 BMI Political and Economic Risk Indices
BMI Risk Summary - Q2 2018
South Korea's high levels of household and external debt, could constrain growth if rapid deleveraging were forced upon the economy. A sharper-than-expected downturn in the global economy or even an implosion in South Korea's household debt market would weaken its exports sector, which in turn may push the economy into a pronounced recession.
South Korea's advanced and industrialised economy represents an attractive prospect for investment in the Asia region. A stable regulatory regime and numerous free trade agreements particularly boost it's appeal. The country offers few operational risks due to its modern logistics networks, highly skilled labour force and a welcoming policy environment for foreign direct investment.
10.5 BMI Operational Risk Index
|Operational Risk||Labour Market Risk||Logistics Risk||Trade and Investment Risk||Crime and Security Risk|
|South Korea Score||70.3||63.5||78.1||67.5||72.0|
|East and Southeast Asia Average||55.3||56.5||54.4||55.7||54.7|
|East and Southeast Asia Position (out of 18)||4||5||1||5||4|
|Asia Position (out of 35)||4||5||1||5||4|
|Global Position (out of 201)||27||22||14||39||35|
Note: 100 = Lowest risk, 0 = Highest risk
Source: BMI Operational Risk Index
|Country||Operational Risk ||Labour Market Risk||Logistics Risk||Trade and Investment Risk||Crime and Security Risk |
|Singapore||82.9||77.8 ||74.7 ||89.9 ||89.3|
|Emerging Markets Averages||46.8||48||45.8||47.5||46.1|
|Global Markets Averages||49.8||49.8||49.3||50||49.9|
Note: Higher score = Lower risk
Source: BMI Operational Risk Index
11. Hong Kong Connection
11.1 Hong Kong’s Trade with South Korea
|Year||Growth rate (%)|
|Number of South Korean residents visiting Hong Kong||1,487,670 (2017)||6.8|
|Number of South Korean residents in Hong Kong||4,907 (2016)||N/A|
Sources: Hong Kong Tourism Board, Hong Kong Immigration Department, UN
|2016||Growth rate (%)|
|Number of Asian residents visiting Hong Kong||52,662,312||-5.0|
|Number of Asian residents in Hong Kong||2,784,870||N/A|
11.2 Commercial Presence in Hong Kong
|2016||Growth rate (%)|
|Number of South Korean companies in Hong Kong||148||N/A|
|- Regional headquarters||7||N/A|
|- Regional offices||47||14.6|
|- Local offices||94||14.6|
11.3 Treaties and agreements between Hong Kong and South Korea
Hong Kong and South Korea have DTAs that cover airline income only.
11.4 Chamber of Commerce (or Related Organisations) in Hong Kong
Korean Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong
The Korean Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, founded in 1976, aims in providing business information, providing business networking opportunity and promoting commercial trades, through various activities to help members to build up their business networks.
Address: 16th Floor, Yat Chau Building, 262 Des Voeux Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Representative: Chairman is Yoon, Bong Hee
Tel: (852) 2544 1713, 2544 2791
Fax: (852) 3905 8313
Source: Directory of Hong Kong Trade and Industrial Organisations, Hong Kong Trade and Industry Department
South Korean Consulate in Hong Kong
Address: 5-6 floors, Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Road, Hong Kong
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Honorary Consul: Kim Kwang Dong, Consul General
Tel: (852) 2529 4141
Fax: (852) 2861 3699
11.5 Visa Requirements for Hong Kong Residents
No visa required for up to 90 days' stay.