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Why Korea imports so much kimchi from China

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Lower prices behind soaring imports of country's staple food

By Kim Jae-heun

A 59-year-old housewife surnamed Lee has recently begun purchasing kimchi products made in China because they are cheaper than locally made ones.

"As living costs rise in all aspects, I have been looking to cut expenses in any possible areas and food is one of them. Before, I would buy kimchi products made in Korea only," Lee said. "But because their prices went up too high, I have been getting Chinese products these days, which are much cheaper."

A 35-year-old restaurant owner surnamed Kim changed the kimchi served at his store from Korean to Chinese too.

"Kimchi products made in China cost just one-fifth what local kimchi costs. People don't come to my restaurant for kimchi anyways, so I decided to change it to Chinese," Kim said.

Korea's kimchi imports last year recorded an all-time high of $169.4 million (208.8 billion won), up by 20.4 percent, year-on-year.

According to the Korea Customs Service, the growth rate of kimchi imports was the highest in 12 years since 2010. The volume of kimchi imports increased from $130 million in 2019 to $150 million in 2020, but decreased to $140 million in 2021 due to a controversial Weibo video that showed what looked like kimchi being made in China with an excavator and a man standing in the pool of kimchi.

In this screenshot of a Weibo video from March 29, a man who appears to be naked wades in a pool of cabbage and grabs some of the vegetables soaked in a murky liquid while an excavator stirs them at a kimchi factory in China. Korea Times file
In this screenshot of a Weibo video from March 29, a man who appears to be naked wades in a pool of cabbage and grabs some of the vegetables soaked in a murky liquid while an excavator stirs them at a kimchi factory in China. Korea Times file

However, as the prices of kimchi ingredients such as cabbage and red pepper powder soared last year ― which led to a 10 percent price increase in locally made kimchi items ― people started to look for less expensive Chinese kimchi.

Both Daesang and CJ CheilJedang raised the prices of their kimchi products by 10 percent.

In 2022, Korea imported Chinese kimchi products at an average of $643 per ton, which is 18.8 percent of the cost of Korean kimchi products exported at $3,425 per ton.

While Korea has increased its kimchi imports from China gradually over the last few years, its kimchi exports declined by 11.9 percent last year. The Korea Customs Service said it is the first time in seven years that the country saw a decrease in kimchi exports.

Kimchi exports surged from $144.9 million in 2019 to $144.5 million in 2020 and $159.9 million in 2021.



Kim Jae-heun jhkim@koreatimes.co.kr


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