(ATTN: ADDS comments, details throughout; CHANGES photo)
SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's industry ministry said Thursday it will carry out various measures to support local steelmakers as protectionism policies around the world are expected to weigh down companies in 2019.
During a meeting with representatives from steel companies, Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo expressed gratitude to local firms for successfully overcoming challenges last year, such as the trade dispute between Washington and Beijing, that hurt market sentiment.
South Korea's exports of steel moved down 0.6 percent on-year to US$33.9 billion in 2018, amid numerous hurdles.
"External as well as internal difficulties will continue throughout the year," Sung said, citing the slowdown in the growth of worldwide demand for steel products, slumps in the automobile and construction industries, and looming restrictions on imports of South Korean steel in markets around the world.
"To further boost exports, it is an urgent task to diversify sales destinations and to strengthen our price competitiveness by reducing costs," Sung said, calling for the expansion of premium goods and flexible responses to possible global restrictions.
He also vowed to carry out joint actions against the possibility of restrictions on South Korean steel products.
To support small players, the ministry said it will work to have conglomerates share their smart-factory technology know-how with smaller companies to achieve shared growth and improve overall productivity.
The government will ask local firms to shift their focus to premium products, and expand their facility investment to beef up their competitiveness, it added.
Choi Jeong-woo, CEO of the country's leading steelmaker, POSCO Co., also called for industry-wide efforts to explore ways to minimize risks from global trade frictions.
"POSCO's quarterly operating profits are forecast to stay above 1 trillion won (US$892.85 million) in the new year," Choi said.
Noting that there could some limitations on its future growth, however, the chief vowed to push for energy storage materials and bio-related sectors as its future growth engines.
BOK has room for rate cuts but will likely save for later
Seoul-Tokyo ties tipped for deeper rift after Japan's expanded export control: experts
Trade row with Japan, another headwind for Korean economy
Japan hides true intentions, leaving export curbs unjustified
Boycott of Japanese goods to intensify as Tokyo expands export curbs