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Medicine exports hit a record-high $4.67 billion in 2018

But the country still reports a deficit despite fast growth
July 30,2019
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Korea’s medicine exports hit a record high of $4.67 billion last year, as sales of bio products boomed, according to data from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety on Monday.

The figure represents a 14.8-percent increase from 2017.

The ministry added that Korea’s medicine exports grew at an average of 17.9 percent per year between 2014 and 2018.

Pharmaceutical exports in 2018 grew 18.8 percent on year, and passed the $3-billion level for the first time. It accounted for 66 percent of all medicine exports above raw material medicine and traditional Korean medicine products.

By country, United States was the No. 1 export destination, buying $502.4 million worth of Korean medicine, a 30.2-percent on-year increase.

In Europe, Germany bought twice as much medicine from Korean last year as it did in 2017. It ranked as the second-largest purchaser of Korean drugs at $460.7 million, followed by Japan ($456.9 million) and China ($403.2 million). Medicine sales to Turkey grew 136.9 percent on year to $385.3 million.

Despite the positive export growth, Korea was still in the red in terms of the medicine trade balance. Medicine imports to the country last year totaled $6.5 billion - a 16.5-percent on-year increase. Korea’s trade deficit in the sector was $1.8 billion. Top exporters to Korea were the United States ($830.4 million), Britain ($743.6 million) and Germany ($737.9 million).

Yet biopharmaceutical exports were in the black for four years straight as of 2018. Korea sold $1.5 billion overseas, a 13.9-percent on-year increase, and achieved a trade surplus of $345.7 million. The average growth rate of exports was 27.6 percent between 2014 and 2018, the ministry said. Its portion of Korea’s entire medicine exports last year was 33.4 percent.

Europe was Korea’s biggest customer for 2018 in terms of biopharmaceutical exports: it purchased $909.7 million worth. The region bought more than half of Korea’s entire biopharmaceutical exports that year. Asia followed in second, at $155.1 million, while the United States came in third, at $145.8 million. However, the growth rate of exports to the United States was 56.8 percent.

Biopharmaceuticals are developed from living, biological sources, like bacteria or cells, and generally require a higher level of technology compared to chemically synthesized drugs.

“Domestic biopharmaceuticals being approved and used in advanced countries prove that Korea’s biopharmaceutical market is developing not only in terms of size but also quality,” the ministry said.

Monday’s research also detailed Korea’s medicine production last year.

Pharmaceutical production totaled 21.1 trillion won ($17.8 billion), a 3.7-percent on-year increase.

Production of prescription drugs grew 6.8 percent on year to 15.6 trillion won, whereas over-the-counter drug production volume was nearly 3 trillion won. Biopharmaceuticals, a subcategory of prescription drugs, came in at 2.6 trillion won last year.

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]