The history of South Korea’s spectacular growth trajectory is based on its export prowess, and that industrialization narrative is based on a supply chain strategy that connected the economy to the global economy. Korea was able to manage this process with tremendous efficiency and success. Contrary to the experience of past decades, however, the current global constellation of factors and other supply- chain realities are forcing a re-examination of this approach. What specifically has changed?
First, the reliability of supply chains was severely impaired by the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences. Near-shoring or on-shoring became much more attractive as compared with efficient global supply chain management and the costs of interruptions as compared with higher inventory levels has changed the production calculus. Second, the continuation of a bitter economic rivalry between the United States and China has seen both nations trying to become more resilient in the procurement of inputs, with consequences for others, such as Korea. Third, the nature of production has shifted with new technologies and the necessity of securing essential minerals and metals needed for new products, such as electric car batteries and micro-chips. These factors mean that industries that that don’t quickly adapt to new circumstances will suffer competitive disadvantages in the global marketplace.
South Korea has long prided itself on being an industrial powerhouse that can insulate itself from many global disturbances. However, as the scenario analysis undertaken by KIEP in 2017 has shown, innocent by-standers can be affected by trade wars, global turndowns, and now pandemics. Korea’s “middle power status “does not provide sufficient insurance in a world of shifting supply chains and geo-political strife. For this reason, KIEP has undertaken a new analysis of supply chain management with the aim of understanding new developments and better protecting today’s, and more importantly, tomorrow’s industries from future shocks.
The purpose of this study is to identify Korea’ vulnerabilities and to take a first step at suggesting changes in both government and corporate actions to help protect the economy.
As Gereffi (2021) notes the disruptions resulting from the Covid pandemic uncovered supply chain fragilities that companies had previously ignored. As a result, all economies, especially, highly open economies like Korea, must now reassess the risks to existing supply chains. The critical first step is to analyze these linkages and assess vulnerabilities. Previous emphasis solely on immediate cost factors must now be expanded to deal with events that can actually halt production, causing costly ripple effects throughout the economy. The response lies in taking concrete remedial action, such as diversifying into new, less vulnerable supply chains; seeking out alternative strategic partners for key inputs; and undertaking more analysis that subjects production to stress-testing of supply chains and imagining worst-case scenarios.
One place to begin involves four industries have proven especially vulnerable to supply chain interruptions: semiconductors, large storage batteries, users of rare earths, and producers of medical supplies. It is noteworthy that Korea sources most of its storage batteries from China, which is also the supplier of lithium and rare earths of the requisite purity. The Covid pandemic and the war in Europe have exposed the Achilles heel of the high-tech industry: its dependence on scarce minerals, which need to undergo environmentally polluting processing before they can be utilized. A robust supply chain for cobalt or lithium or neodymium or manganese requires securing supplies of the raw material and then also establishing a degree of control over its processing either domestically or through the ability to source the refined product from multiple sources. This dependence makes Korea increasingly vulnerable and limits its ability to make other decisions in the national interest.
Central to this discussion is the view that Korea has under-invested in access to strategic raw materials and that there is a disconnect between its industrial ambitions and its management of critical inputs. Investment has focused on the technologies, assuming that raw materials would be easily available. Other countries, such a China, a major competitor, have sought access to raw materials through extensive and expensive programs in Africa and elsewhere, some under the umbrella of the Belt-and-Road Initiative. By contrast, Korea’s outreach policies in both foreign assistance and foreign direct investment, have not kept pace.
Analysis by Baldwin and Freeman (2020) provides some empirical data on China’s centrality in supply chain, draws attention to the importance of Germany and the U.S., and shows how extensive the linkages are between Korean and Chinese industries. “China really is the workshop of the world – it is central to the entire global network of trade and production.” Manufacturing inputs from China make up over 3.6% of every major nation’s manufacturing output. For Korea, the number rises to over 16% with close to 30 percent of Korea’s imports of certain intermediate inputs for electronics industry imported from China some manufactured by subsidiaries of Korean firms. China is also Korea’s number one export destination. Hence China is central to the analysis of Korea’s supply chains and their vulnerability.
China’s drive for self-sufficiency is already reflected in the declining percentage of imports in GDP over the last decade or more, and in its massive investment in semiconductors, which China feels is a vulnerability that other countries can exploit. Central to China’s semiconductor industrial policy is the National Integrated Circuits Industry Development Investment Fund (known as the “Big Fund”), established in 2014 with $21 billion in state-backed financing. The Big Fund was renewed in 2019 for a second round of state financing that exceeded $35 billion. To date, China’s National IC Fund has invested $39 billion, of which 70% has been for front-end manufacturing with the goal to increase China’s share of global semiconductor production. This combined with the Made in China 2025 Report provides a very clear picture of China’s intention with respect to self-sufficiency, and these goals pre-date current supply chain concerns.
Moreover, given the dependence of Korean electronics and storage battery producing firms on China’s markets and suppliers, the problem looms especially large. China has demonstrated an increasing proclivity to use its control over supplies of raw material and products to threaten and discipline trading partners and its wolf warrior diplomacy has signaled a readiness to go on the offensive against all countries at the slightest provocation.
In response, Korea will need to forge more strategic alliances, something that doesn’t come easily to some chaebol giants. Government will have to align its R&D and other strategic investments with those of the corporate sector in a better coordinated manner; to fail to do so risks Korea falling behind China, Europe, and the US, all of whom are undertaking or assessing how to undertake more dramatic efforts to secure their supply chains and become more self-sufficient in key aspects of production. Having moved away from industrial policies pursued in the past, Korea may need to heed the lessons of greater corporate-government cooperation as practiced in Singapore, and certainly China, in order to maintain its competitive edge in newly emerging industries.
While this study and others will have little difficulty in identifying areas where actions are needed, the challenges will rest in the sphere of political economy. Korea finds itself in a difficult situation of economic dependence on China and defense dependence on the U.S. This is a conundrum that will neither disappear nor diminish. In managing this difficulty, Korea needs to reduce both dependencies and manage its situation with clear- thinking, wise investments, coordinated national efforts and smart diplomacy. Although this study doesn’t deal with the geo-political issue, it does need to point out that the China dependency, largely on China’s terms, is worrying. Korea’s response to the China 2025 Report was inadequate, and China’s action in response to the THAAD deployment were at some level shocking, but perhaps not completely unexpected. So what’s to be done?
Korea will need to do the following: It will need to invest it the resilience of its supply chains by which we mean it will have to move from “just- in-time” inventory management to “just-in-case” approaches to deal with increased uncertainty. It will have to add to the robustness of its supply sources by diversifying them; insofar as this involves a reduction of Korea’s dependence on China, this is a strategic investment worth undertaking. Next it needs to consider increasing redundancy of suppliers, namely, securing multiple sources of critical inputs. While this may add to the cost of doing business, the alternative of ignoring the chances of supply chain interruptions is costlier.
A strategy for supply chains must be intertwined with a development strategy for the medium and the longer term as well. It must factor in the drivers of Korea’s growth both manufacturing and tradable services; geopolitical trends; technological change; the risks from shocks that could increase in frequency and severity; and the changing nature of supply chains as the Korean economy enters a postindustrial stage and the population ages. The biggest challenge is to design measures that can mitigate and manage the impact of disruptions to come.
In summary, the actions noted below are advisable if Korea is to reposition itself and make its supply chain less vulnerable.
● Continued diversification into high value products and services;
● Diversification of sources of inputs to improve supply chain robustness and redundancy, even if this entails some loss of efficiency;
● Adoption of a JiC strategy including the stockpiling of essential inputs possibly on a regional basis;
● Innovation that reduces dependency on scarce materials;
● Some reshoring of items of the greatest strategic importance;
● Enhancing trade facilitation practices, transparency, and regulatory cooperation;
● Creating mechanisms for consultation and cooperation in crisis situations.
● Securing the growth of trade in services through agreements that dismantle the barriers to the flow of digital traffic and to FDI in services.
In addition, Korea will need to seek out new long-term strategic partners for essential raw materials, especially key minerals, metals, and rare earths. This admonition leads to a central failure of policy in recent decades and that is to allow corporations to act in what they consider their best interests without considering national goals. Put differently, a number of OECD countries have moved their foreign assistance programs from pure development aid to assistance to strategic trade and investment partners (e. g., see cases of Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom ). Here is a case where economic interests and political interests intersect and where government needs to take a strong role in forging new alliances with countries in control of strategic inputs.
Options to reduce Korea’s dependence on China will not be easy and will not be cheap. Reshoring to Korea would be aided by government incentives and regulatory easing that encourages the inward flow of foreign investment. In addition, Korean outward FDI can proactively build production capabilities elsewhere - as TSMC, Samsung and Intel are now doing in the United States – for example in India as part of Korea’s New Southern Policy. Korea is already recalibrating its ties with the United States and with ASEAN – as is Japan. There are some natural alliances that seem feasible to explore and working more cooperatively with Japan would be in both countries’ economic interests.
As it noted in the final section of this report, there are many steps that Korea can undertake to improve its supply chain management position and reduce its vulnerability. To be effective, however, both government and business will have to work in tandem. Moreover, securing safer supply chains will need to be a national priority. Hoping that the global system will return to its pervious state is foolhardy. Expecting that China will be a benign competitor is also ignoring current realities. There are new opportunities for Korea to reposition itself for the production of new industries, and, as the report argues, the production of new digitally-based services; however, any viable innovation and investment strategy will need to make supply chain management a critical component. Korea’s future growth performance may well depend on it.