South Korea banks on massive cabbage warehouses to avert kimchi crisis
Workers at a factory in South Korea work fervently at a production line processing kimchi, the beloved national dish made using fermented cabbage or other vegetables.
But despite the bustle, South Korea's kimchi makers are facing problems due to a climate change-induced shortage of cabbages which has sent prices rocketing this year. Business is also being exacerbated by cheaper offerings from Chinese competitors who don't have s cabbage shortage.
Ahn Ik-jin, chief executive of kimchi maker Cheongone Organic, is one such company struggling to purchase enough cabbages due to the high prices. Storage units at his factory have been all but empty. Ahn has sourced some inferior-quality cabbages to keep production going. Still, he has had to raise its business-to-business kimchi prices by two-thirds to 5,000 won ($3.50) per kilogram as a result.
"We used to produce 15 tonnes of kimchi a day but now we are only producing 10 tonnes or less," he said. "We need measures for a smooth supply of good quality cabbages."
Such is the sense of crisis surrounding the spicy pickled side dish eaten daily by many Koreans and central to Korean identity. To help ease the situation, the government recently laid out plans to construct two massive cabbage storage facilities by 2025 with an investment of 58 billion won ($40 million).
At 9,900 square metres each, the facilities to be built in the rural counties of Goesan and Haenam will combine, be equivalent to three soccer pitches in size.
The storage complexes will be able to store 10,000 tonnes of cabbages and pickle 50 tonnes of cabbages daily, said Lim Jeung-guen, deputy director of the agricultural ministry's food industry promotion division, adding that more complexes could be built if the first two work out well.
South Korea's local kimchi industry has been on a slippery slope for quite some time. Chinese imports, often priced at about a third of locally made kimchi, have surged over the past two decades to account for 40% of the local market for commercially made kimchi.
Add in weak cabbage harvests over recent years and much of the industry has just crumbled. Last year, almost half of South Korea's 1,000-odd kimchi makers either shut down permanently or temporarily or were reporting zero sales, according to a study by Korea Rating & Data.
Korean kimchi makers are hoping the government's plan will at least prevent home-grown producers from losing further ground.
The country's kimchi exports surged 10.7% to $160 million last year, riding a wave of interest in Korean culture propelled by the likes of boy band BTS and Netflix's dystopian drama "Squid Game".
Domestically, however, the concern is also growing that the cabbage shortage will also torpedo the tradition of 'Kimjang' — the making and sharing of kimchi among families, friends and communities, often conducted in but not limited to November.
"I normally make kimchi myself but the cost of ingredients has gone up so much," says Kim Sook-kyung, 72, as she bought ready-made kimchi at a supermarket in Seoul.
According to an official at the Hanaro Mart supermarket chain, sales of ready-made kimchi have climbed 20% since August compared to the same period a year earlier.