Did you know: Why Korea Imports Kimchi from China?

Kimchi, South Korea’s cherished culinary icon, faces a surprising shift with a rising influx of imports from China. Here is a look into the economic, social, and agricultural factors behind this surge, to uncover the reasons driving Korea’s growing dependence on Chinese kimchi imports.

08 August 2023

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Photo Credit: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Kimchi, South Korea’s quintessential fermented vegetable dish, has long been an integral part of the country’s culinary and cultural heritage. However, in recent years, there has been a notable shift in the kimchi landscape, with an increasing amount being imported from China. This unexpected trend has raised eyebrows and generated debates about the factors behind the surge in Chinese kimchi imports. Delving into the factors behind this shift, we explore the economic, social, and agricultural reasons driving Korea’s increasing dependence on Chinese kimchi imports.

China-made kimchi has a cost advantage

One of the primary reasons for the spike in Chinese kimchi imports is the cost advantage it offers over domestically produced kimchi. Back in 2003, South Korea decided to augment its kimchi supplies by importing from China due to the significantly lower production costs in the neighbouring country, according to International Monetary Fund. As a result, Chinese kimchi has grown in popularity, particularly within the catering industry, where cost considerations are paramount, and consumers are often unaware of the origin of the kimchi they are consuming.




Photo caption: Kimchi trade with China, from 1998 to 2013 | Image credit: International Monetary Fund

The numbers speak for themselves
According to an article published by The Korea Herald, the Korea Customs Service has stated that the growth rate of kimchi imports reached a 12-year high in 2010, with the volume of imports increasing from $130 million in 2019 to $150 million in 2020. However, a controversial video in 2021, showing questionable production methods in China, caused imports to dip to $140 million, raising concerns about the quality and safety of Chinese kimchi.
Despite the occasional setbacks, the allure of cost savings remains irresistible. Korea JoongAng Daily has reported that in 2022, Korea continued to import Chinese kimchi at an average cost of $643 per ton, which amounts to only 18.8 per cent of the price of Korean kimchi products exported at a much higher $3,425 per ton. This stark price difference has undoubtedly fuelled the surge in Chinese kimchi imports
Trade dynamics at play
The trade dynamics are also reflected in kimchi exports from South Korea. The China-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in December 2015, has had a significant impact on kimchi imports between the two nations. This trade agreement has facilitated bilateral trade and opened up new opportunities for businesses, particularly in the agricultural sector, including kimchi.
While imports have been on the rise, kimchi exports have experienced a slight fluctuation, with a surge from $144.9 million in 2019 to $144.5 million in 2020, and finally reaching $159.9 million in 2021. The price discrepancy is, again, a key factor here, with exports fetching significantly higher prices, particularly when destined for markets like Japan.

A typical Korean meal with kimchi as an accompaniment | Photo Credit: Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

In 2016, the World Institute of Kimchi reported that a staggering 89.9 per cent of the kimchi purchased by South Korean restaurants was imported from China, further reflecting the extent of reliance on Chinese imports within the food industry.
Chinese kimchi preferred for reasons beyond cost
Beyond economic reasons, social factors contribute to this shift. The fast-paced modern lifestyle of Koreans has fuelled the demand for convenience foods, including pre-packaged kimchi, which Chinese imports offer. Additionally, cultural exchange between China and Korea has led to an appreciation of Chinese kimchi varieties, further driving the trend, according to the Journal of Ethnic Foods.



Video Caption: Rolling kimchi by hand the traditional way Video Credit: Alex_eg / Envato Elements

Agricultural factors play a role as well. Korea has faced cabbage shortages, a crucial ingredient in kimchi production, owing to weather conditions, pests, and limited agricultural land. As a result, imports —which include those from China—fill the gaps in the kimchi cabbage supply. China’s advanced processing capabilities and agricultural capacity allow for large-scale preservation and export of kimchi, ensuring a steady supply even during Korean shortages.
The surge in Korean kimchi imports from China is a multifaceted issue driven by economic, social, and agricultural factors. Cost advantages, changing lifestyles, and cultural exchange all contribute to this shift. It is crucial to strike a balance between embracing diversity and preserving traditional culinary heritage, ensuring that the essence of kimchi, deeply rooted in Korean tradition and history, remains cherished even amidst evolving global tastes. 

Author: Victoria Lim

Victoria Lim is a content writer with a diverse background and her work includes brands such as Capella Hotels and Resorts, Epicure Magazine, HungryGoWhere.com, and Makansutra. Her luxury hospitality, culinary arts, and food journalism expertise have shaped her commitment to sharing stories.

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