Pharmaceutical industry in South Korea - Statistics & Facts

As of 2017, the pharmaceutical industry in South Korea was a significant industry, worth over 20 trillion South Korean won (approximately 17.3 billion U.S. dollars). Pharmaceutical spending accounted for approximately 1.6 percent of South Korea’s GDP in 2017, while spending per capita increased steadily. In general, Korean companies produce copies of pre-existing drugs, rather than researching new pharmaceuticals. An example is Celltrion, which has become a world leader in biosimilars. A biosimilar is a biopharmaceutical product which is similar to another, already approved, biopharmaceutical – in short, it is an alternative drug. A biopharmaceutical is a pharmaceutical which has been manufactured with biological sources. This contrasts to traditional drugs, which are artificially and chemically synthesized.

The value of pharmaceuticals produced in Korea has been growing throughout recent years, rising from around 14 billion won in 2013 to over 18.5 billion in 2018. This growth corresponds to the increased production of both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs – the latter has consistently accounted for approximately 83 percent of the production value. The vast majority of pharmaceutical distributors are pharmacies, of which there are over 22 thousand across the country and represent around 84 percent of all distributors.

In international trade, pharmaceutical exports doubled to over four billion U.S. dollars in 2017, compared to exports in 2013. Meanwhile, imports have remained fairly stable, and valued around 5.6 billion U.S. dollars in 2017. Although the difference between exports and imports remains considerable, it has steadily decreased in recent years, and the gap is expected to narrow further. On the other hand, in regard to biopharmaceuticals, exports were higher than imports. Exports increased from around 400 million U.S. dollars’ worth in 2013 to almost 1.4 billion U.S. dollars’ worth in 2017.

Hanmi Pharmaceutical was the leading pharmaceutical company in Korea in 2018, in terms of production value, producing over 900 billion South Korean won worth of pharmaceutical products. Chongkundang and Celltrion followed with approximately 817 billion and 726 billion South Korean won worth of products respectively. Celltrion has not always been successful, taking the company over a decade before making a profit on its initial investments. In 2016, the American Food and Drug Administration approved the distribution of Celltrion’s Remsima, a medication which is used to treat autoimmune diseases and is also a biosimilar of Infliximab. Remsima is now used as an alternative to Infliximab and has been approved for sale and use in multiple countries, including the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

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