Wary of overdependence on overseas suppliers, the South Korean government is investing heavily in increasing the resilience of its public procurement process.

The South Korean government announced last month plans to establish a commission to oversee and coordinate plans to make the country’s procurement process more resilient. This announcement comes on the back of concerns over the vulnerability of South Korea’s “critical industrial” supply chains.

A state-backed fund expected to exceed 5 trillion won ($3.79 billion) is being set up to “secure stockpiles of critical supplies and support investment in relevant businesses and facilities”, with a long-term goal of divesting Korean industries from overdependence on procuring materials from single country suppliers.

Specifically, urea (like ammonium phosphate used in fertiliser manufacturing) and graphite (used in the production of batteries for electric vehicles) are both considered critical materials for Korean industrial activities, and supplies of both originate almost exclusively from China.

An Editorial published in the Korea Times noted that a recent export restriction of urea product shipments from China has caused a spree of panic buying. “What matters is that China accounts for 95 percent of Korea’s ammonium phosphate imports. Desperate to cope with a growing sense of crisis especially among farmers and relevant industries, the [Korean] government came up with a package of measures designed to secure key materials on a stable basis.”

The government will procure a reserve of 12,000 tonnes of urea in order to create a 130 day buffer to safeguard against future disruptions.  

The way ahead

At a meeting of the new commission on Monday, Korean Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho commented that “Recently, supply chain risk factors for items directly related to core industries and people’s livelihoods—such as urea, diammonium phosphate and graphite—are increasing,” suggesting that devising a national procurement strategy less reliant on Chinese exports would be essential, given the fraught economic and political histories between the countries. 

Moving forward, the commission said it would designate materials and items for intensive monitoring, selected from among 200 options identified as being of critical importance and potentially vulnerable to supply chain disruption by a government study conducted in 2021. Magnesium, tungsten, neodymium and lithium hydroxide were included in the previous listing. In addition to urea products, the Korean government is expected to increase its stocks of graphite, 90% of which comes from China.

By Harry Menear

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