Reshuffling Value Chains - South Korea as a Case Study Asie.Visions, No. 135, April 2023
Despite all the talks about the reshuffling of value-chains and the trend to a form of industrial “Desinicization” (or decoupling/disengagement from China), the example of South Korea does not vindicate such assertions.
The expansion of Korean direct investment in neighboring countries such as China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains a reality and it has not changed in any fundamental way over the past two decades. South Korean companies’ decisions to locate in one country rather than another are still very much based on cost factors, even if security considerations are increasingly factored in.
Similarly, reshoring, which has been high on the South Korean government’s agenda for a long time, remains a marginal phenomenon for South Korean companies, despite the incentives provided.
Rather than the relocation of production (in the form of reshoring or nearshoring) South Korean companies have turned to more unexpected options, such as the development of complementarity-based partnerships or vertically-integrated production networks with commodity suppliers, as in the case of the production of rare earth-based magnets. Such a strategy is likely to become more popular in the future, as it nicely combines economic and security considerations.
Without a doubt, due to the highly politicized nature of the technology involved, the semiconductor industry is the one undergoing the most significant changes. In a context of rising Sino-US rivalry, the US has ramped up pressures on China with far-reaching consequences, leading South Korean semiconductor companies (with the support of the government) to engage in a strategy combining relocation to the US and onshoring in South Korea.
While the economic logic is likely to prevail in most sectors thus limiting the scope for supply chain reshuffling, the examples of the semiconductor and rare earth-based magnets suggest that important changes can still be expected in the future in industries that are deemed strategic.