S. Korea eyes ASEAN to boost farm exports

SEJONG, May 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is moving to boost its exports of agricultural and food products to Southeast Asian countries as part of efforts to offset damage from the country's free trade agreements (FTAs), government officials said Friday.

The move comes as the country seeks to sign a bilateral FTA with China, which is feared to hurt South Korea's agricultural and fisheries industries.

South Korea has signed 11 FTAs that cover nearly 50 countries. The FTA with the U.S. alone was estimated to incur a loss of over 12 trillion won (US$11.63 billion) to the country's agricultural and fisheries sectors over the 15 years following its implementation in March 2012.

However, the country's exports to the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been growing steadily over the past 10 years, even after the Korea-ASEAN FTA went into effect in June 2007, officials from the agriculture ministry said.

South Korea's food and farm exports, including fishery products, to ASEAN jumped over eight-fold over the 2004-2013 period while shipments to Japan, the world's largest importer of South Korean food products, increased only about 40 percent over the cited period.

In 2013 alone, farm exports to ASEAN countries spiked 19 percent from a year earlier to $985.1 million, while shipments to Japan dropped 8.6 percent on-year to $1.28 billion.

South Korea continues to log a large trade deficit with ASEAN states, but the deficit has been steadily narrowing, the officials said.

In 2013, South Korea's food imports from ASEAN countries only inched up 1.1 percent on-year to about $4 billion.

"ASEAN countries continued to post an annual economic growth of 2 to 3 percent even during the turbulent years of the global financial crisis that began in 2008," a ministry official said.

"Their increased household income is leading to higher demands for South Korea's quality food products, especially amid favorable market conditions created by the growing popularity of Korean pop culture there."

To help push exports to the region, the ministry, together with the Korea Agro-Fisheries