South Korea has accumulated substantial foreign exchange reserves over the past few decades, reflecting its strong export-oriented economy and managed exchange rate policy. As of August 2022, South Korea’s foreign exchange reserves totaled $446.8 billion, making it the 8th largest in the world. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of South Korea’s forex reserves including their composition, growth trends, management, and implications for the country’s economy and global standing.


Foreign exchange reserves are external assets held by a nation’s central bank or monetary authority that are readily available to balance payments and directly influence exchange rates. Reserves are typically held in foreign currencies themselves or other reserve assets like gold or SDRs. For South Korea, forex reserves provide an important buffer against external shocks and add credibility to its exchange rate policy.

South Korea began actively building up reserves in the 1960s to fund its rapid industrialization drive. Growth accelerated after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, with authorities realizing the need for larger reserves to maintain currency stability. The accumulation has continued in the 21st century, briefly surpassing $400 billion in 2011 before declining during the euro crisis. Recent growth has pushed reserves to new highs, reflecting South Korea’s strong fundamentals amid global turmoil.

Composition of South Korea’s Foreign Exchange Reserves

The Bank of Korea manages and reports on South Korea’s official reserves. As of August 2022, they totaled $446.8 billion – up $17.2 billion from the same month in 2021. The reserves have a diverse composition across major asset classes:

  • Securities: 70.9% of reserves are held in the form of securities like foreign treasury bonds and institutional bonds. The vast majority are government bonds from advanced economies like the US and Europe.
  • Deposits: Deposits at foreign central banks and financial institutions account for 9.5% of reserves. They offer liquidity and interest income.
  • Gold: Gold comprises 4.0% of reserves at 9.11 tonnes. South Korea has been increasing gold holdings since 2019 for diversification.
  • IMF Reserve Position: This reflects Korea’s quota at the IMF and allows it to borrow foreign currencies. It accounts for 1.6% of reserves.
  • Other assets: 14% of reserves are held in other reserve assets. This includes foreign currency assets and loans.

South Korea’s forex reserves are predominantly held in US dollars, reflecting the dollar’s status as the world’s primary reserve currency. The dollar’s share has fallen though, from 87% in 1995 to around 70% today. The euro now accounts for 8% as the country diversifies across currencies.

South Korea’s forex reserves have seen robust growth over the decades, rising from just $0.9 billion in 1970 to over $400 billion by 2011. Reserves initially grew in the 1960s and 70s to fund industrialization. But the pace accelerated rapidly after the 1997 Asian financial crisis exposed the weaknesses of low reserves. Growth trends can be examined across four key phases:

1. Rapid Industrialization Era (1960s – 1996)

  • Forex reserves increased from $0.9 billion in 1970 to $33 billion by 1996.
  • Korea vigorously pursued export-oriented growth, resulting in trade surpluses.
  • Central bank accumulated dollars to fund payments and smoothen exchange rate volatility.
  • Persistent current account deficits also necessitated the build-up of reserves.

2. Post-Asian Financial Crisis (1997-2007)

  • Reserves swelled from $33 billion in 1996 to $262 billion by 2007.
  • The 1997 crisis caused a liquidity crunch and highlighted the need for larger reserves.
  • Authorities adopted a policy of aggressively accumulating reserves as a buffer after IMF bailout.
  • Current account shifted to consistent surpluses, supporting growth.

3. Global Financial Crisis Era (2008-2012)

  • Reserves surpassed $400 billion in 2011 after growing rapidly since 2008 financial crisis.
  • Current account surplus hit a record high in 2011 at $28 billion.
  • Central bank accumulated reserves to limit won appreciation amid capital inflows.
  • Holdings dipped in 2011-12 as euro crisis prompted intervention.

4. Recent Years (2013-Present)

  • Reserves declined between 2013-16 due to dollar strength and currency intervention.
  • Current account surplus narrowed but remained strong overall.
  • Growth resumed in 2017, acceleration in 2021-22 driven by trade surpluses.
  • As of August 2022, reserves stand at a record high of $446.8 billion.

Prudent reserve management has allowed South Korea to withstand both domestic and external shocks over the decades while allowing it to maintain a managed exchange rate. With its robust current account surplus sustained today, reserves are likely to continue growing.

Management of South Korea’s Foreign Exchange Reserves

The Bank of Korea is solely responsible for reserve management operations as part of its central banking duties. The key goals are safety, liquidity and return – in that order of priority. BOK undertakes the following functions:

  • Asset Allocation: Well-diversified across currencies, asset classes, maturity, and country exposures.
  • Risk Management: Reserves are split into working balances, liquidity reserves, and investment funds. Risk is minimized via counterparty limits.
  • Performance Benchmarking: BOK benchmarks returns against peer central banks and absolute real returns.
  • Disclosure and Transparency: BOK releases monthly and annual reports on forex reserve data and management.
  • Currency Intervention: BOK may engage in currency transactions to smooth volatility and prevent excessive appreciation or depreciation.

While the central bank manages reserves autonomously, it coordinates closely with the Ministry of Economy and Finance on exchange rate policy. Its monetary policy decisions also influence the flow of forex liquidity and use of reserves.

BOK has focused on more advanced and diverse management of reserves since the Asian financial crisis while balancing liquidity and return. Its asset managers are skilled in various asset classes. Overall, the central bank has an excellent track record, maintaining smooth growth and utilizing reserves prudently over time.

Implications of Large Forex Reserves for South Korea

South Korea’s sizable reserves have served it well historically but also have implications looking ahead:


  • Exchange rate stability – Reserves allow the central bank to smooth volatility in won and prevent large swings.
  • Crisis buffer – Reserves insure the economy against external shocks and liquidity crunches, as witnessed in 1997.
  • Economic credibility – Large reserves signal strength, boosting investor confidence in the economy.
  • Geopolitical leverage – Reserve size gives Korea bargaining power globally. It is less reliant on the IMF or US for emergency funds.


  • Reserve accumulation – Growing reserves too aggressively can be costly and spark inflation. Managing flows is challenging.
  • Financial losses – Mark-to-market losses can occur, like during the euro crisis. High foreign assets pose currency risk.
  • Alternative uses – Excess reserves could arguably be better utilized for infrastructure, social spending, tax cuts, etc.
  • Currency disputes – Large forex reserves stoke controversies over exchange rate manipulation, especially vis-a-vis Japan.

While reserves confer stability, Seoul must balance ongoing accumulation and efficiency in utilization. Allowing faster won appreciation may ease disputes and costs. But giving up the buffer reserves provide is risky in a volatile world.


In summary, South Korea’s sizable foreign exchange reserves reflect the country’s strong fundamentals and emergence as a trade powerhouse over the decades. While subject to some criticism, reserves have afforded it an invaluable cushion against external shocks and enabled stable growth. Prudent management by the central bank has allowed reserves to keep pace with the expanding economy. With Seoul’s structural edge in exports unlikely to dissipate soon, reserves seem poised to remain high to help navigate any global crises andvolatility going forward. The challenge will be balancing the benefits and costs, but the buffer and credibility reserves provide are clearly worthwhile for Asia’s fourth largest economy.