(News Focus) Chinese goods flex more muscle in S. Korea
By Kwak Young-sup
SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- Chinese products are fast expanding their presence in South Korea in a graphic indication of their ever-growing brand power in Asia's fourth-largest economy, local analysts said.
China has long been a major exporter of consumer goods and tech items to South Korea, but Chinese manufacturers, armed with lower prices and improved quality, are now venturing into new South Korean markets such as home appliances and even autos.
Last year, South Korean imports from China came to US$86.98 billion, with Seoul's shipments to the world's second-largest economy reaching $124.43 billion. China was South Korea's top export destination in 2016.
Given such high interdependence, observers point out, China would suffer considerable damage if South Korea comes up with countermeasures against Beijing's recent economic sanctions on Seoul over the planned deployment of a high-tech U.S. missile defense system on South Korean soil.
Although semiconductors, wireless communications equipment and computers remain China's flagship exports, food and other consumer products have been sharply expanding their market share here.
The Chinese beer brand Tsingtao is a case in point. In the first two months of this year, Tsingtao emerged as the No. 1 imported brand in South Korea at a leading discount store chain, unseating last year's top-seller Heineken of the Netherlands.
"With the market for imported beer expanding steadily, Tsingtao beer accounted for around 10 percent of foreign brand sales at our outlets this year, taking the top-selling position," an E-Mart official said.
Industry watchers attribute surging sales of Tsingtao to the rising popularity of Chinese cuisine in South Korea, including roasted lamb on skewers.
The Chinese beer brand Tsingtao (Yonhap)
"Restaurants that serve Chinese-style roasted lamb, which used to operate only in local Chinatowns, have been fast expanding to other areas to reach a wider number of South Koreans," a market source said. "The trend has eventually prompted more consumers to drink Chinese beer."
South Korea imported 36,159 tons of Chinese beer in 2016, more than seven times the amount in 2010, according to data by the Korea Customs Service. Tsingtao made up the lion's share.
Beer is not all. South Korean imports of kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made of cabbage and chili pepper paste, from the neighboring country have been growing at a fast clip in recent years.
According to data by the World Institute of Kimchi, the value of South Korean kimchi imports rose 7.3 percent on-year to a record high of $121.5 million in 2016, with 99.9 percent of them coming from China.
The volume of kimchi imports surged 13.1 percent on-year to 250,000 tons last year, with South Korea registering a deficit of $121 million in kimchi trade with China.
South Korea's annual kimchi consumption is estimated at 1.6 million tons, with a quarter of it consumed at restaurants and cafeterias. That means more than six in 10 South Korean restaurants serve Chinese kimchi.
China has also been flooding South Korea with its cheap fisheries products and farm produce. South Korean imports of Chinese fish and other fisheries goods topped the $1.2 billion mark for the first time in 2016. Chinese goods accounted for more than 25 percent of Seoul's imports, making China the single largest exporter of fisheries products to South Korea.
South Korean imports include squid, octopus, yellow corvina and blue crab, which are cheaper than local products or hard to catch domestically.
Imported Chinese kimchi (Yonhap)
"With overall consumption of fisheries goods rising, imports of marine products are expected to continue their upturn for the time being as domestic output is not sufficient to catch up with demand," said an official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
Industry sources also say Chinese companies are ramping up efforts to make forays into South Korea's low-end electronics market and even the car market.
Chinese electronics products had been branded as cheap and low-quality ones, but Chinese tech giant Xiaomi Inc.'s launch of smartphones in 2014 is said to have served as a turning point, giving South Korean consumers the impression that they have "not bad" bang for the buck.
Xiaomi's backup batteries for mobile phones account for upwards of 60 percent of the domestic market as their net design and good quality have appealed to local customers. Xiaomi's market share once surged to 75 percent, but its dominance has been eroded by Samsung Electronics Co. and other local rivals.
Also jumping on the enter-Korea bandwagon are smartphone maker Huawei, computer maker Lenovo, TV maker TCL Corp., home appliance maker Haier Group and washing machine manufacturer Media.
Notably, TCL's 32-inch liquid crystal display TVs sell here at a price of up to 30 percent lower than their South Korean rivals, with the price tag of Media's washing machines with a 3.2-kilogram capacity amounting to one-third of South Korean products.
TCL TVs are on display at a Seoul store. (Yonhap)
On top of electronics makers, Chinese auto companies are setting their sights on the South Korean market. In mid-January, BAIC Motor Corp., the passenger car-making unit of China's state-owned BAIC Group, launched its mid-size SUV Kenbo 600 here, becoming the first Chinese carmaker to enter South Korea.
The first batch of 120 Kenbo 600s sold out in South Korea just about one month after its debut mainly because of its low price tag. The Kenbo's "modern trim" sells for just under 20 million won ($17,300), much cheaper than their South Korean rivals.
China's largest EV maker BYD Co. is widely expected to debut an electric bus in South Korea in the latter half of this year. BYD has been seeking to enter the South Korea market after setting up a local subsidiary in October last year.
Chinese companies' growing inroads into South Korea come amid a seething row between Seoul and Beijing over the installment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in the southeastern part of South Korea.
In retaliation for the THAAD deployment, Beijing has ordered major travel agencies to stop selling tours to Korea, and South Korea's Lotte Group seems to be taking the brunt of Beijing's retaliation after it recently provided land for the missile defense battery in a deal with the Seoul government.
Market watchers say there is a need for both Seoul and Beijing to avoid engaging in a game of chicken which could harm the two countries in light of their economic relations.
"South Korean consumers' boycott of Chinese products could take a considerable toll on the Chinese economy, given bilateral trade," said a market source. "Since the two economies are highly dependent on each other, Seoul and Beijing should refrain from taking retaliatory measures in an emotional way."