Report Highlights:

In 2013, total Korean imports of seafood were $3.57 billion, down 2 percent from 2012 due to the worsened economy and reduced demand by food service industry and export business. However, imports of American seafood increased by 25 percent to $211 million making the United States the fourth largest supplier with a 5.9 percent market share. U.S. seafood is generally considered high quality and safe, but less price competitive when competing with other origins. Fish Surimi, Flatfish, Glass Eel, Alaska Pollack Roes, Monkfish, Skate, Hagfish, Cod, Atka Mackerel, etc. are some of the major species imported in large quantities from the United States.

General Information:


In 2013, Korea’s seafood import from all origins was $3.57 billion, down 2 percent from $3.65 billion in 2012. The United States was the fourth largest exporter of seafood products to Korea. The largest seafood supplying country in 2013 was China at $967 million, followed by Russia at $589 million, Vietnam at $478 million, USA at $211 million, Norway at $119 million, Taiwan at $117 million, Thailand at $116 million, Japan at $102 million, Chile at $87 million, and Canada at $74 million. These ten countries accounted for 80 percent of Korea’s total seafood imports in 2013. 

Korea imported $211 million of U.S. seafood in 2013, up 25 percent from $169 million in 2012, providing the United States with an increased market share of 5.9 percent. In Korea, U.S. seafood including aquaculture is generally considered high quality, but higher in price compared to that of competing countries. Until 2011 the United States has been the fifth largest exporter of seafood in Korean market following China, Russia, Vietnam and Japan but in 2012 Japan turned its rank over to the United States due to Korean consumers’ withering demand for Japanese seafood products after the nuclear power plant incident. In 2013, the U.S. maintained its market position with a remarkably increased sales performance of its seafood products compared to that of year 2012. Fish Surimi, Flatfish, Glass Eel, Alaska Pollack Roes, Monkfish, Skate, Hagfish, Cod, Atka Mackerel, etc. are some of the major species imported in large quantities from the United States and increased value of U.S. seafood exports to Korea can be accounted for by Frozen Alaska Pollack Surimi ($43.5 million, up 34 percent), Live Glass Eel ($19.5 million, up 200 percent – demand for U.S. product exploded due to skyrocketing domestic price of live eels), Live Lobster ($16 million, up 2,930 percent – benefits from less expensive product under KORUS FTA has focused attention on U.S. lobster and a growing number of retailers began to hold a series of large scale in-store promotions in 2013), Frozen Alaska Pollack Roe ($11.5 million, up 21 percent - local demand is growing), Live Hagfish ($11.3 million, up 49 percent - short supply of local hagfish), Frozen Hagfish ($6.5 million, up 15 percent), and Frozen Atka Mackerel ($6.2 million, up 23 percent – increased demand by institutional feeding sector). 

Until 2000, Korea was a net exporter of seafood. However, growing domestic demand and limited supplies have reversed the situation. In 2013, Korea exported $1.75 billion of seafood and imported about $1.82 billion more than it exported. Imports are expected to continue to outpace exports ensuring that Korea will remain an important market for U.S. seafood suppliers. 



The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) implemented on March 15, 2012 is expected to deepen the longstanding economic alliance between the United States and Korea. With respect to the seafood sector, the KORUS FTA is expected to create more opportunities for U.S. seafood exporters. Customs duties for fishery products imported from the United States were cut to zero immediately or will be phased out over the course of 3 to 10 years. For instance, the Customs duty for Frozen Sockeye Salmon was cut to zero immediately. In contrast, Customs duties for U.S. trout and sea bass will be reduced to zero in 3 and 10 years, respectively. The Customs duty elimination will be prorated equally every year over the phase-out period. 

There are three fish species which are subject to Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQ) under the Agreement. For instance, the Customs duties are zero for imports of 1,785 metric tons of Frozen Flatfish and for 4,752 metric tons of Frozen Alaska Pollack in 2014. The quantities shall enter on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The industry forecasts that Korean consumers will take advantage of lower prices resulting from elimination of import duties to demand more glass eel/live, Sockeye salmon/frozen, flatfish/frozen, salad eel/live, Pollack surimi/frozen, lobsters/live/frozen, Pollack/frozen, monkfish/frozen, cod/frozen, Pollack roes/frozen, fish fillet/frozen, fish surimi/frozen and shrimps/live, fresh or chilled. 

Negotiated customs duties on certain seafood products under the KORUS FTA are higher than the current MFN applied base rate, which Korea lowered after the trade agreement was negotiated. 

However, the MFN applied rate will be used when it is lower than the KORUS duty. The KORUS duty will take effect when it is lower than the MFN rate.


• Supply

In 2012, Korean seafood production decreased to 3.18 million metric tons, down 2.2 percent from 3.26 million metric tons in 2011. Production from adjacent waters decreased 11.6 percent and production from shallow-sea aquaculture decreased 12.5 percent from the previous year. The total local seafood production value also decreased by 4.7 percent due to the reduced catching of anchovies, mackerels and Alaska Pollacks in adjacent waters as a result of ocean climate change. It is expected that Korean domestic fish production volume will not increase significantly in the future due to reductions in fish resources in adjacent waters and the enforcement of Exclusive Economic Zones by Korea's neighboring countries. Constraints built into bilateral and multilateral fishing accords will further impact total harvest. The harvest from adjacent waters fisheries consists primarily of squid, mackerel, corvina, hairtail and anchovy. Government efforts to boost aquaculture production in the shallow sea areas clearly indicate the importance of this sector as a future seafood resource.

The number of fishing vessels has been steadily decreased reflecting the reduction in fishery resources. To cope with this situation, the Korean government has accelerated the downsizing of the Korean fishing fleet and plans to reduce it further over the next several years. Recognizing the potential economic impact of this step and the reduction in fishery agreements, the Korean government is undertaking an in-depth study of aquaculture and researching how to secure higher fish catch quotas in foreign waters and is working hard to purchase fish quotas from other countries, including Russia. 

As seafood export opportunities with China, EU and Japan grow, the Korean government is also focusing on aquaculture in shallow sea areas to cope with the shortage of fishery resources in the adjacent water and restrictions in neighboring countries’ waters. Shallow sea aquaculture is expected to continue to increase in the future due to the government’s plan to have the country’s annual seafood export reach $10 billion by the year 2020. 

To insulate select domestic seafood producers from imported products (mainly from China), the Korean government has set higher “adjustment tariffs” ranging from 22 to 50 percent for nine fish species which are not subject to tariff bindings under WTO agreements. Prior to implementation of the adjustment tariffs, imports of these nine species were subject to tariffs ranging from 10 to 20 percent. 

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MIFAFF) established 415,308 metric tons as the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for 2014 of eight species. There are further restrictions such as limited catch seasons for some species as well as restrictions on the number of fishing boats and fishing methods.

• Demand

Korean consumers place high value on freshness, place of origin, taste, low cost, and food safety in the course of making seafood purchasing decisions. Overall performance of the Korean seafood market will depend greatly on production and consumption. Due to the shortage of ocean resources, seafood production is not expected to increase in the near future. Despite this, consumption of seafood continues to grow as consumers view seafood as a healthy source of protein.

Price, quality and timeliness are the most important factors affecting U.S. trade. U.S. fish are generally considered to be high quality and, in turn, more expensive than other countries products. Fortunately, the major species imported from the United States are species that Koreans enjoy and that other suppliers do not supply in large quantities. 

The Korea Rural Economic Institute reported in its 2012 Food Balance Sheet that annual per capita seafood consumption in Korea was 54.9 Kg (fishery products and shellfish = 39.0 kg and seaweed = 15.9 kg) in 2012. The major seafood species that Koreans consumed are anchovy, shrimp, squid, tuna, Alaska Pollack, mackerels, yellow corvina, saury, hair tail, flat fish, monk fish, eel, rock fish and cod, etc. The success of Korean industry efforts to change consumer perceptions of fish (as a healthy alternative to red meat), to diversify fish products, to improve quality, and to develop processing technology will be key in expanding domestic demand. 

Thanks to increased income and improved standards of living, seafood family restaurants are growing in popularity in Korea. They are expanding their business due to good business environment. Todai, Ocean Seafood, Bono-Bono, Seafood Shangrilla, Marisco, Makinochaya, Fisher’s Market, Sea-n-More, Ell Bleu, Ocean Star, D’ Maris, and Muscus are popular seafood family restaurants. These restaurants are using imported seafood as well as locally produced seafood. 

Koreans eat fish in various states: fresh fish, chilled fish and lastly, frozen fish in the order of preference. Some fish are consumed raw (“Hoi”, or “Sashimi”), and commands a price premium. Korean consumers assume fresh fish tastes better than frozen fish after cooking. Accordingly, fresh or chilled fish tend to be substantially more expensive than frozen fish. 

As more and more women are working outside the home, the demand for convenience food has increased. Korean consumers are more attracted to precooked, prepared and preserved food available at supermarkets. In 2013, CJ (Cheil Jedang) Corporation launched a new canned product brand called “Alaska Salmon”. The price of a can is 3,600 Korean Won for 135 grams and it can be converted to about $13.4 per pound. Even though the price is more than two times higher than those of the regular canned tunas, this 100 percent Natural Salmon product hit the market making $9.5 million of sales in 2013 with a market share of 68 percent. Stimulated by this successful launching of “Alaska Salmon” brand, competing canneries such as “Dongwon” and “Sajo” also introduced their canned salmon products taking 32 percent of the market share. CJ Corporation, the market leader, plans to diversify its canned salmon products by adding two or more new products in 2014. 

Hotels and department stores generally use high quality seafood for which they charge a higher price and some of the five-star hotels and leading department stores have already done special promotions featuring U.S. seafood products such as lobsters and scallops commemorating the 1st and 2nd anniversaries of the KORUS FTA implementation. 

However, the institutional feeding and food service sector generally uses cheaper food ingredients to reduce cost as much as possible to cope with the fierce competition in the sector. The most popular fish products in this market area include frozen flatfish, skate, croaker, Atka mackerel, Alaska Pollack roe and snow crab.

• Competitors

Seafood is imported into Korea from about 100 different countries. Major suppliers of fishery products to Korea include China, Russia, Vietnam, USA, Norway, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Chile and Canada. In 2013, the top ten supplying countries accounted for about 80 percent of total Korean seafood imports on a value basis. China continued to be the largest supplier, followed by Russia and Vietnam. 

A dozen supplying countries including China, Russia, Japan, Norway, Thailand, Chile, Canada, Indonesia, etc. are some of our competitors that participate in the Busan International Seafood & Fisheries Expo annually. These competitors exhibit a wide variety of seafood products targeting importers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, hotels, restaurants and food processors.

• Marketing

Imports of seafood are relatively straight-forward compared to other food and agricultural products. Importers import fishery products, and generally sell to hotels and food service industry directly, and/or to distributors who sell to traditional markets and restaurants. When the volume is large, importers generally sell to retailers such as supermarkets, discount stores and department stores directly. When the volume is small, importers sell to distributors who sell to retailers. Accordingly, U.S. suppliers should contact seafood importers to sell their fishery products to Korea. 

Consumers like to purchase the species that they are accustomed to, and importers tend to import the species consumers are demanding. As mentioned earlier, imports of only 31 species accounted for almost 92 percent of total seafood imports from the United States to Korea in 2013. This means that U.S. exporters should supply the species consumers prefer, and at the same time should also try to invest in building demand for other species with which consumers currently lack familiarity. 

Possible sources of market information include Korean importers, U.S. state departments of agriculture, the USATO website and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Lists of Korean importers, by species, can be obtained from the U.S. Agricultural Trade Office. 

One way of finding potential importers while also assessing market potential is to participate in local food shows to showcase your products to a larger audience. Many Korean importers attending these shows are looking to establish reliable long-term trading relationships. Show participation enhances initial contacts with importers, agents, wholesalers, distributors, retailers and others in the food and beverage industry. 

Seoul Seafood Show (3S) 2014 will be held in Seoul at COEX, April 3-5, 2014. Sponsored by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MIFAFF) of Korea, this is the only show held in Seoul specializing in seafood, fishery, nursery, aquaculture, processing machinery and related equipment. This show is held in April every year and targets seafood buyers, users, fishing businessmen and traders. The 2014 show will be attended by NOAA Japan office. 

Busan International Seafood & Fisheries Expo (BIFSE) 2014 will be held in Busan at BEXCO convention center, July 2-4, 2014. It offers an excellent opportunity to explore possible market opportunities in Korea. This show has been held in November every year and targets importers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, hotels, restaurants, food processors, media, etc. Currently it is the only seafood show held in Korea attended by ATO Seoul. ATO Seoul has been participating in this show for 11 years, in cooperation with SRTGs such as SUSTA and Food Export USA Northeast