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China Risk Growing to Lead Korean Companies to Turn Their Backs
Exodus from China
China Risk Growing to Lead Korean Companies to Turn Their Backs
  • By Jack H. Park
  • September 20, 2017, 02:00
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The excessive dependence on China boomeranged against South Korean companies when the THAAD Incident broke out.
The excessive dependence on China boomeranged against South Korean companies when the THAAD Incident broke out.


South Korean companies are withdrawing from China once regarded as the second domestic market in droves. Since the 2000s, South Korean companies have made inroads into China with a huge domestic market and cheap labor one after another. China emerged as the No. 1 export market of Korea in 2003, surpassing the United States. In 2013, exports to China accounted for 26% of South Korea’s total exports. With the addition of the Korean Cultural Wave in China, South Korean consumer companies such as cosmetics, food, and distribution companies also built factories in China and established distribution networks.

However, when the THAAD Incident broke out, excessive dependence on China boomeranged against South Korean retail and distribution companies. Lotte Mart is pushing forward with the sell-out of 99 stores in China that the company invested 2 trillion won (US$1.8 billion) in over the past decade, and E-Mart gave up its Chinese business. CJ O Shopping, a home shopping company, has begun to restructure its business in China while Hyundai Home Shopping brought to a halt to local broadcasting in China. Orion picked as one of most successful South Korean consumer goods companies in China saw its operating profit shrink 64% from the previous year.

The South Korean cultural contents industry was also directly hit by China’s retaliation for South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD System. According to the Bank of Korea (BOK) on September 18, South Korea posted US$179.9 million in surplus in cultural content trade between with China in the first half of this year. The figure is a drop of about US$100 million from the same period of last year

Seeking Post-China Markets

Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin visited the US, Japan, and Vietnam one after another since April, and is building a new overseas business portfolio that was focused on the Chinese business. In Vietnam, Lotte is building build a complex shopping mall in Hanoi by investing a total of 330 billion won (US$297 million) and planning to build a two-trillion-won (US$1.8 billion) multi-purpose complex in Ho Chi Minh City.

SM Entertainment also is expanding its business in Thailand and Indonesia instead of reducing the portion of its Chinese business by introducing “New Asia” Strategy this year. CJ E&M, a broadcasting and film contents company, established Korean film channel TVN Movies in Singapore and Malaysia last year and is planning to enter the Philippines and Hong Kong soon. "Although sales in China nosedived in the first half of this year, overseas sales more than doubled to 140.5 billion won (US$126 million) from the first half of last year thanks to surging sales in Southeast Asia," said a senior official of CJ E&M.

There is also a boom in withdrawing from China among South Korean manufacturing companies. As their Chinese business becomes tough, they are making moves to diversify their production bases and markets into Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States on a full scale.

According to the Export-Import Bank of Korea, foreign investment by South Korean companies gained 30% from last year, while investment in China slid 30% to just US$1.1 billion. The figure remained above US$3 billion annually every year since 2008 but plunged this year. In the trade industry of South Korea, it is predicted that South Korea’s investment in China this year will fall short of US$2 billion in 14 years since 2003. On the other hand, in the first half of the year, South Korean companies’ investment in other nations such as the US, Japan, Ireland, Indonesia and Poland more than doubled from the previous year. This means that South Korean companies are rushing to withdraw from China.

In particular, emerging nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are rising as powerful alternatives to the Chinese market. Samsung Electronics is making Vietnam its core production base. Hanoi already produces 40% to 50% of the tech giant’s total smartphone volume. Samsung Electronics is operating an industrial complex that produces TVs and household appliances. LG Electronics also reduced the portion of production in China and is scaling up its production capacities in Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico.

In fact, the Hyundai Motor Group, sales of which in China dropped nearly 50 percent in the first half of this year, began to spur its expansion in India and Vietnam as post-China markets. Chung Eui-sun, vice chairman of Hyundai Motor visited Vietnam for the first time in March and held a meeting with the President of Vietnam to discuss investment plans. On September 7, the minister of investment planning of Vietnam paid a visit to Hyundai Motor's headquarters. Hyundai Motor is currently building two assembly plants in Vietnam to be used as production bases in Southeast Asia. Kia Motors set up a corporation in India in July and will invest US$1.1 billion to build production facilities in India's Nantapur area by 2019.

South Korean battery makers also scrapped their investment plans for China in concert this year. Since last year, the Chinese government has been delaying the certification of Korean companies' batteries for electric cars. With the THAAD Incident prolonged, there is no end of the delay in sight. Under the circumstance, Samsung SDI is planning to convert its Hungarian PDP (plasma display panel) plant into a battery plant and put it to work in the first half of next year. LG Chem also built a battery plant in Poland and has been conducting trial production since July. The company will invest 436 billion won (US$392 million) in this plant by 2020. SK Innovation will cancel its Chinese plant construction plan which the company has pursued since last year and decided its location between Hungary and the Czech Republic in Europe this month.

"Chinese local governments competed to attract South Korean battery companies while promising to give all benefits and convenience to them. But the Chinese government began to plainly discriminate against the South Korean companies as it was expected that the South Korean companies with strong competitiveness will dominate the Chinese battery market,” a battery industry official said. "It is unprecedented in other countries in the world to continue to refuse to certify batteries produced by Samsung SDI and LG Chem."

South Korean food and cosmetics companies are also join in the exodus. CJ CheilJedang has acquired three Vietnamese food companies since last year and launched an integrated production base in Ho Chi Minh City in July. Korean cosmetics companies are going all over the world to expand their markets. In the Osong Cosmetics and Beauty Industry Expo which kicked off on September 12, the number of Chinese buyers who visited the event dropped to 50 from 200 to 300 in the past but buyers from Middle Eastern and African countries such as Iraq, Israel, Sudan and Algeria visited the event for the first time. The expo also attracted more than 30 buyers each from India, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan. "South Korean cosmetics companies that chose to withdraw from the Chinese market had engaged in a dogfight with one another in the Chinese market," a cosmetics company representative said. “The THAAD crisis is serving as momentum to lead South Korean cosmetics companies to diversify overseas markets, breaking away from concentration on China."

"Although China’s retaliation against the THAAD System may give trouble to South Korean companies right now, it may serve as an opportunity to revamp the Korean economy which has relied too heavily on the Chinese market with strong uncertainties," said Jung Hyung-kon, director of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

Broking Even Withdrawal of Korean Companies

China’s retaliation has even put the South Korean companies trying to get out of the Chinese market on the hot seat. The Chinese government is blocking South Korean companies from leaving China while prohibiting assets from being taken out of China without any standards. In addition, Lotte and other large South Korean corporations are also having difficulty in their withdrawal process as the Chinese government demands huge compensation from South Korean companies restructuring their human resources management structures.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) on September 19, among 41 companies that came back to South Korea from 2014 to the end of the first half of 2017, 38 companies (93%) returned from China. This means that local business environments in China are very unfavorable. Anti-South Korean sentiments that have been generated since the US military’s deployment of the THAAD system are hampering South Korean companies’ normal sales and sales promotion activities, making South Korean companies teetering on the edge of going bankrupt.

It is said that South Korea’s small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations which made a foray into China are preparing to withdraw, but the Chinese government is openly interrupting their withdrawal from China. South Korean manufacturers have been not allowed to bring production facilities back to South Korea. The Chinese government has banned South Korean manufacturers from transporting simple production machines to South Korea from China while designating them as "equipment that adversely affects the Chinese economy." Finally, small and mid-sized South Korean companies could not help but return to Korea empty-handed, many of them are forced to stay in China.

In order to carry out a restructuring that prunes the number of employees due to management difficulty, South Korean companies have to give big compensations to workers. According to China's labor contract law, workers must pay economic compensation. If a worker is employed for less than six months, the compensation should be a 0.5-month salary. A one-month salary should be given to those who worked for six months to one year. For South Korean companies with deficits growing every day, this kind of compensation is a big constraint to prevent them from withdrawing from China.

The same goes for big South Korean companies like Lotte. There is enough room for Lotte to pay compensations and there is no equipment for Lotte to take out of China as Lotte is not a manufacturer but the Chinese government is putting a brake on Lotte’s plan to leave China behind negotiations for sale. Chinese local distributors and capital have been sounding out opportunities to buy Lotte Mart stores in China, but it is said that they are passive and reluctant in negotiations because they are afraid of retaliations by the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, on September 18 (local time) US trade representative Robert Lighthizer pointed out that China's economic and trade practices are a threat to the global trade system. "China's organizational efforts to give subsidies to Chinese companies, forcing non-Chinese companies to transfer technology to Chinese companies and distort the market are an unprecedented menace to the world trading system," Lighthizer said at a seminar held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. “The WTO and international trade norms are not suitable for dealing with China's current way.”