Today’s modern Korean footwear industry has a history of almost 100 years. The shoe industry in the modern sense started with the advent of ‘rubber shoes’ in 1912. Busan is the center of the Korean footwear industry. According to the National Statistical Office, there are 386 shoe manufacturers in Korea as of 2019. Of these, 172 (44.6%) are located in Busan, and Busan is leading the Korean footwear industry.
According to the Busan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, there were 1,123 footwear companies in Busan alone in 1990, accounting for 23.6% of the manufacturing industry in Busan. Busan’s footwear industry achieved rapid growth in the 1950s. Kukje Trading Co., Jinyang, Taehwa, Samhwa, Dongyang Rubber, and Daeyang Rubber were equipped with a vulcanization process production system, which changed to cold rolling process and became a key base for sports shoes production and export.
Since then, the pace of growth has slowed compared to the past as it entered the ‘foreign direct investment period’ due to the relocation of overseas factories, etc., but there are still various companies such as footwear materials, manufacturing and parts in Busan. In the 2000s, the possibility of ‘growth’ through the Kaesong Industrial Complex was confirmed. Currently, efforts are being made to advance the industry using new materials and smart processes.
‘100 Years of History’ takes an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of the Busan footwear industry.
If you don’t know Busan shoes, there was a time when you were a ‘spy’. There was a time when, in the US, when it comes to leather and shoe factories, there was a time when there was talk of recommending ‘Busan’ rather than ‘Seoul’ first. In this and the next episode, the ‘past’, when the Busan footwear industry was widely known and grown, is mainly dealt with.
With a history of about 100 years, the Korean footwear industry has grown centered on Busan. The domestic footwear industry has grown in the meaning of modern ‘industry’ with the first appearance of rubber shoes in Incheon in 1912. In 1933, 73 factories were operated nationwide due to the popularity of rubber shoes. There was even a record in newspapers that Sunjong, who succeeded King Gojong, the emperor of the Korean Empire, used rubber shoes. In Busan, there are records that companies such as Seonman Rubber were established around 1921 and started to jump into the rubber shoe manufacturing industry. It is known that around 1949, about 70 shoe factories were registered in Gyeongnam Province in Busan, where it was easier to secure raw materials for rubber shoes compared to other regions because it is located near the sea.
After that, representative Busan shoe manufacturers will establish themselves in various places, mainly in Busanjin-gu and Dong-gu. Jinyang Rubber in Buam-dong, Busanjin-gu, Dongyang Rubber in Danggam-dong, Taehwa Rubber in Gaya-dong, Samhwa Rubber in Beomcheon-dong, Daeyang Rubber and Bosaeng Rubber in Jeonpo-dong, and Kukje Trading Company in Beomil-dong, Dong-gu were representative shoe factories. After the factories were established, footwear products with nationally known brands such as Beompyo, Wangjapyo, and Dongjapyo were produced.
In particular, in Busan, the ‘saturation of vulcanization process’ production line was built in the 1970s, and exports began in earnest. ‘Vulcanization’ means adding sulfur. It is also called ‘curing’ (a term derived from ‘oil’ of sulfur) because it increases elasticity by combining sulfur with rubber. The vulcanization process uses this principle to attach ‘raw rubber’ to the shoe upper and rubber sole, put it in a kiln, and steam it to fix the shoe sole and upper.
Converse, as we know it now, is produced through this process. Busan is geographically close to Japan, so engineers from Japan, who had excellent technology for these processes at the time, were invited to learn the technology and raise the level. In fact, Taehwa Rubber and Wolsung Rubber of Japan and Samhwa Rubber signed a technical alliance with Japan’s rubber.
And the establishment of a production line based on this process became the basis for the growth of the Busan footwear industry through ‘export’. At that time, brands such as Converse and Kez in the US market and Europe tended to increase the production of ‘sneakers’, and there were situations such as an increase in wages in Japan, which was responsible for producing shoes for this brand. This is because the US footwear market has started to turn to Korea and Taiwan, which have production lines and technological prowess, as they face this situation.
When Kukje Trading Co., Jinyang, Taehwa, Samhwa, Dongyang Rubber, and Daeyang Rubber established the production process with large-scale investment in footwear production, Busan became the ‘world’s largest saturated production base’. In addition, factors such as low wages, sincerity of Koreans meeting deadlines, technological prowess, and the government’s export strategy support system based on economic development plans were combined.
As a shoe production cluster was formed in the Busan region, it became known internationally that any problem from shoe development to production could be solved by going to Busan. This is because it has grown into a ‘cluster’ where information related to footwear, such as footwear subsidiary materials, parts, design development, and machinery, is actively taking place in Busan. There is also a record that it was difficult to secure competitiveness in the footwear industry without knowing the footwear companies in Busan at that time.
Then, from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, the Busan footwear industry began to produce sneakers based on the cold-rolled product cluster. When the new ‘cold rolling process’ appeared while the vulcanization process was predominant, management companies such as Kukje Trading Co., Jinyang, Taehwa, Samhwa, Dongyang Rubber, and Daeyang Rubber expanded their production facilities for the cold rolling process.
Unlike the vulcanization process, which applies heat to the entire shoe by attaching raw rubber to the upper, the cold pressing process is a method of vulcanizing the sole and attaching it to the upper using an adhesive. This process has since developed into a process suitable for functional ‘sports shoes’ as it can manufacture complex-shaped soles if a mold that can print the shape of the shoe sole is well designed.
In particular, in the case of the cold rolling process, the role of the ‘adhesive’ that connects the vulcanized rubber to the upper is highlighted. Dongsung Chemical localized this adhesive to support the production process, and machine makers such as Kukdong Machinery, Punggap Machinery, Dabo and Sambo developed the necessary equipment for the cold rolling process.
With such a framework in place, the Busan footwear industry once again had an opportunity to expand exports, centered on ‘Nike’. In the 1970s, Nike entered the sneaker market with high-performance specialized products necessary for sports such as jogging shoes and basketball shoes. Nike, which had previously outsourced ‘production’ to Japan and the US and imported it, was introduced to ‘Samhwa Rubber’ by Japan’s Nihon Rubber. Since then, Samhwa will have the monopoly right to manufacture Nike in Korea, but due to the rapid increase in demand, other large shoe companies in Korea will also be responsible for the production of Nike sneakers.
As international sports brands such as Nike, Reebok, and Adidas entrusted the production of functional sports shoes to Korea, Kukje Trading Co. Taekwang Ind., Hwaseung, Samyang Trading, and Daishin Trading will also be in charge of commissioned production (OEM: Original Equipment Manufacturing) for world brands.
Based on this, Korea’s shoe exports started to grow rapidly from 1985 to 1990. In 1975, the United States imported $1.31 billion worth of shoes from Korea. This accounted for 10% of US footwear imports. In 1885, the size of American imports increased further. It imported 61.3 billion dollars worth of shoes from Korea. 19% of the share. In 1988, Korea would account for 29% of US footwear imports. Then, in 1991, the value of US footwear imports from Korea grew to $9.12 billion.