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South Korea Expands Support for Shipbuilders as Challenges Grow

South Korean shipbuilding
Ministers announced additional support during a visit to the HD Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan (file photo)

Published May 10, 2023 3:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The South Korean government announced a series of new initiatives planned to further support the domestic shipbuilding industry. Government officials cite the strong orderbook built over the past two years as the industry rebounded and leadership in what they term “high-value” ships while also recognizing the growing competition and need to develop new technologies.

Minister of Trade, Industry, and Energy, Lee Chang-yang outlined the plans to support the industry with further investments during a tour of the HD Hyundai Heavy Industries shipyard in Ulsan on Wednesday, May 10. Supported by the Ministry of Justice and the Financial Services Commission, he said the government would be expanding its investments to support the development of new technologies while also increasing the foreign worker programs and providing new financial support programs all designed to expand South Korea’s position in the industry.

Previously the government had launched programs to support research and development of advanced technologies including ammonia, hydrogen, and electric propulsion. They have also outlined programs to support training and recruitment to meet the long-term employment needs and address the current shortage of skilled workers.

The announcement of the new programs comes as the shipbuilding industry is under pressure as global orders have slowed since late 2022. Clarkson Research in its latest monthly update highlighted that April saw the lowest monthly level in three years, with just 80 ships (1.85 million compensated gross tons) ordered, a 62 percent decline over a year earlier and a 44 percent decline versus the previous month. South Korea’s shipyards received orders for only 13 ships, 20 percent of the market, while China grew its market share to 70 percent.

Minister Lee however highlighted that South Korean shipbuilders currently have orders for nearly 40 million tons or 35 percent of the order backlog. He pointed to the $9.4 billion in orders booked in the first three months of the year and a 12-year high of 38.68 million CGT in March, enough to “generate income for the next three years.” Korea won 70 percent of the high-value and green shipping orders in March, including 17 of the 19 LNG carriers ordered worldwide. The Minister expects the industry will generate $21.5 billion in exports this year alone.

"The world has a close eye on our shipbuilders' technology and manufacturing capability, and the business environment is changing favorable to us, with ship prices rising and more demand for environment-friendly vessels," Lee said during his presentation. "The government will spare no effort to support the industry's rebound and for market leadership in the future.”

To address the labor shortage, the government said that approximately 5,500 foreign workers had entered South Korea so far this year. They have already reached a third of the industry’s goal of 14,000 foreign workers this year with the government promising more efforts to simplify visa and labor regulations.

Other programs include investments of approximately $135 million for R&D of new technologies. The government looks to expand efforts in autonomous shipping and eco-friendly designs to continue the leadership in high-value shipbuilding. The Financial Services Commission is also expanding finance programs designed to extend more support to medium-sized shipbuilders. More state-run and commercial lenders will be involved to ensure more access to financing for the large and medium-sized shipbuilders as well as increase the guarantee rate for shipbuilders to protect from contacts terminated due to a builder’s default.

The ministers said the industry is coming back from years of an industry-wide recession but it will be critical to maintain South Korea’s competitive price, quality, and technological advantages.