The number of Korean exports that lead the global market fell from 71 in 2010 to 61 in 2011. A total of 26 Korean-made products that ranked No. 1 in overseas markets were overtaken by foreign rivals, and only 16 new ones rose to the top spot over the same period.
Among the 26 Korean exports that were overtaken, 12 were beaten out by Chinese products. They included petrochemicals, steel and LCDs, which had been a mainstay of Korean manufacturers for years.
The number of Korean-made products that saw their top ranking beaten by Chinese rivals rose from two in 2009 to seven in 2010, flashing warning signs over Korea's export competitiveness.
China ranked first with the most top exports at 1,431, followed by Germany's 777, the U.S.' 589, Italy's 230 and Japan's 229. Korea ranked only 15th although it is the world's seventh biggest exporter. In other words, it depends on a worryingly small number of products.
The prospects do not look bright. The Japanese yen has weakened 11.3 percent against the U.S. dollar from 77 yen in early 2012 to 85 yen at the end of the year, and the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rolled up its sleeves to keep the yen weak. In contrast, the Korean won has strengthened 7.4 percent from W1,155 to W1,070.
That has made Korean products more expensive overseas. Some analysts are saying that most exporters here have reached the limit of the profits they are able to make.
If the Korean economy is to achieve balanced growth and emerge from the slump, as much attention should be paid to boosting domestic consumption as to exports.
The government must waste no time in minimizing foreign exchange-related risks for exporters, including measures to stem the influx of speculative foreign capital. It also must help businesses themselves develop more competitive products and search for new markets overseas.