South Korea food imports 2020: Wines and processed fruit top list as beer and kimchi take COVID-19 hit

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Processed fruit products and wines topped the list of food and beverage imports into South Korea last year. ©Getty Images
Processed fruit products and wines topped the list of food and beverage imports into South Korea last year. ©Getty Images

Related tags South korea imports

Processed fruit products and wines topped the list of food and beverage imports into South Korea last year, whereas past star performers beer and imported kimchi numbers suffered severe drops as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS), South Korea continued to import vast amounts of food and beverage products to maintain food security in 2020 despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was an uptick in foods linked to health and wellness benefits.

“The food items that were most imported into South Korea in 2020 were processed fruits and vegetable products, which rose by almost 6,000 tons to hit 281,222 tons this year compared to 275,424 tons in 2019,”​ MFDS Minister Kim Gang-lip said in a formal statement.

“These imports were ranked third last year out of all imports, but this sudden increase has raised it to become the top import in 2020. We believe that the main reason for this was a rise in the public’s interest in health and wellbeing last year.

“This was translated to an increase in fruit and vegetable concentrates [believed to be good for health] – this was particularly so for tart cherries which saw a 106x growth in imports, pomegranate with a 64% growth and carrots with a 42% growth.”

Another category which saw skyrocketing growth was wines which saw a jump of well over 17,000 tons (30.4%) from 53,231 tons in 2019 to 69,413 tons in 2020, one of the largest increases by volume seen last year.

“MFDS attributes the growth in fruit liquors such as wine to the rise of the ‘home liquor’, or enjoying of alcohol at home trend, as well as the trend of Korean consumers moving to diversify their alcohol consumption choices [both of which grew rapidly due to COVID-19 lockdowns],”​ said Kim.

Not all imported alcohol types benefitted from the COVID-19 lockdowns though – the government numbers also showed that imported beers took a major hit in 2020 with volumes dropping by over 80,000 tons, the largest decline in the list - a major hit for a product that used to be the country’s top import item.

“Beer imports were ranked first in terms of import volumes at 362,027 tons in 2019, but last year this category saw a drop of over 82,392 tons (22.8%) to 279,635 tons dropping it to third place,”​ said Kim.

“Our analysis shows that this is because the sales of imported beers such as Japanese beers have decreased, leading to less imports.”

Imported kimchi, which is commonly used in Chinese restaurants in Korea, retained its position as the second most-imported food product last year, but also suffered a severe volume drop of almost 26,000 tons due to COVID-19 lockdowns affecting the foodservice sector.

“Imported kimchi had been on the rise for the past three years from 2019 to 2019, increasing at an annual average rate of 5.5%, but last year imports decreased by 8.3% from 306,619 tons in 2019 to 281,021 tons in 2020,”​ said Kim.

It also remains to be seen how the recent kimchi-claiming saga – where China attempted to lay claim to kimchi as part of its own culinary culture, a claim that the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture  continues to refute – will affect these imports, as 99.9% of South Korea’s imported kimchi comes from China.

Beer still suffering

Of the products mentioned, Japanese beers in particular have been hit hard by both COVID-19 and a national boycott on Japanese products in South Korea in 2020 - even major breweries such as Asahi and Kirin​ have been having a hard time.

“The boycott in South Korea has been keeping going, and the situation is not getting better at all [even after all this while],”​ ​Asahi Group Holdings Corporate Communications Manager Kristin Chiu told us previously.

“Our beer sales in South Korea is still in a tough situation this year, [and] the COVID-19 situation has also had impact on our sales - Basically all of our sales channels have been affected.”

Chiu’s comments tie in with MFDS’ numbers and the boycott is still ongoing – according to a recent December 2020 poll conducted by market researcher Embrain, 76.4% of surveyed Korean females and 67.2% of males continue to participate in the boycott, with beer brands Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo listed amongst the most boycotted brands.

MFDS analysis also does not provide much hope for the sector as yet, with Kim saying that it is believed that ‘domestic beers are growing to replace imported beers such as Japanese beers’.

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