After being the world’s fastest growing economy between 1980 and 1990, and especially after its successful democratization after 1987, South Korea has become a highly developed nation and an industrial and technological leader in many fields as well as a member of the G20 in a matter of just a few decades. Providing its citizens with the fastest internet connection speeds and being home to many large technology companies, South Korea is a global leader in many innovation-driven industries. As the world’s 8th largest importer, it is also a very attractive market for many international businesses intending to sell technology and other sophisticated products.
Before being allowed to import and sell products in South Korea, conformity with local regulations must be ensured. For many manufacturers or importers, this often means a certification is required to verify compliance with the requirements of applicable consumer safety standards.
The Korean government has drastically consolidated their certification systems in the last decade, so that the following certification schemes can be highlighted as the most important ones:
- KC certification for many different products, like consumer goods, electronics or children’s products;
- KC EMC certification for electromagnetic compatibility and wireless products; and
- KC certification for machines and industrial robots.
This article provides an overview of these different certification systems.
In the past, Korea had a complex setup of 13 different certification systems and 140 different test marks, all regulated by different governmental organizations, sometimes even with partial overlaps. In 2009 all these certifications were consolidated after the government introduced the KC certification system to replace the multitude of different certification marks.
More than 730 types of products are now being regulated under the KC certification umbrella, with consumer goods and especially electronic products being a major contributing factor. KC certification confirms that the products are in compliance with the relevant Korean Safety Standards, the so-called K standards or special governmental ordinances. Even though these standards are usually similar to comparable IEC standards, the KC certification ensures that the products conform with local Korean standards before being allowed to be imported or sold in the country.
The responsibility for the drafting of standards and international standardization efforts in South Korea rests with the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards (KATS). Part of South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE), KATS establishes the general regulatory framework for the KC certification scheme. Products that fall under the KC certification scope have to be checked and certified in accordance with the provisions of South Korea’s Quality Management and Safety Control of Industrial Products Act and its Electric Appliances Safety Act.
Accredited as certification bodies and test labs are the Korea Testing Laboratory (KTL), the Korea Testing and Research Institute (KTR) and Korea Testing Certification (KTC). These organizations are permitted to inspect and test the level of product conformity, issue certificates and give permission for marking products with the KC logo.
Generally, the KC certification is manufacturer-based. This means that there is no differentiation between an applicant and the manufacturer. For the KC certification, the actual factory, where a product is produced, must be registered and identified on the certificate.
KC certification covers a wide range of consumer goods, from household appliances to high-visibility clothing, children’s products and certain automotive products. However, electric appliances are the most important product category for the KC certification. In addition, most electronic products that use the Korean voltage of 220V AV have to be KC certified. In general, electronic devices with more than 30V (AC) or 42V (DC) usually require a KC certification.
There are three different certification modes and the type of KC certification depends on the product category. The Korean authority defines which products fall under which category and regularly updates these requirements. The three certification types are the following:
- KC Safety Certification
- KC Safety Confirmation
- KC Supplier Confirmation
Under the KC Supplier Confirmation, the applicant’s own test results or those from a third-party test lab can be used to show compliance. However, the applicant has to ensure that the tests are conducted according to Korean standards and test methods. No official registration or audit is required, but the manufacturer has to ensure that the labeling requirements are fulfilled. This certification mode is only applicable for electronic products which are classified as not dangerous for users as determined by the certification authority.
The KC Safety Confirmation requires tests in a designated accredited test lab and an official registration with the authority. Electrical equipment that is classified as less dangerous for users usually falls under this category, which for instance includes dish washers, air purifiers and sewing machines. The manufacturer does not have to go through factory audits and the KC certificate is valid for 5 years.
Electrical products that pose a potential danger for users have to obtain a KC Safety Certification. This certification mode requires testing in an accredited lab as well as a factory audit. In order to uphold the validity of the certificate, regular follow-up inspections and product tests are necessary.
Generally, the KC certification process can be simplified and shortened when valid CB certificates and test reports can be presented that verify compliance with the requirements of applicable IEC standards. This documentation must verify that testing has included assessment against Korean voltage of 220V (AC) 60 Hz, or they will not be accepted by the authority.
Certain electrical components of the products that need to be certified also have to be either KC or CB certified. For example, this includes the power plug, switch, AC inlet and circuit breaker. If neither KC certificates nor CB reports demonstrating compliance with IEC standards are available, additional tests of these key components will be required by the certification authority.
As this certification mostly targets products that are intended to be sold to consumers in Korea, the certification authority requires the submission of Korean-language manuals during the certification process. This should be factored in before starting the application process as it can easily lead to unnecessary delays.
Another important product category for KC certification are children’s products and especially products intended for use by children under the age of 13. Most children’s products require the KC Safety Confirmation at a minimum, including toys or skin care products for children. Products like child restraint systems, for which safety is a crucial design feature, require a KC Safety Certification. However, textiles or leather products for children are only required to go through the KC Supplier Confirmation procedure.
Once a product has been successfully certified, the KC label has to be marked on the product along with certain additional information. Under the KC logo the certification body and certificate number must be displayed. In addition, certain product information must appear on the product label. This includes the product and model name, production date and rated voltage (for electronic products). While the KC logo remains a fixed requirement, actual labeling requirements around specific product information can vary between product categories.
In general, provided product information must be in Korean, except for the name of the manufacturer or the product model, if this information cannot be easily converted into the Korean language.
KC EMC Certification
Most electronic devices as well as broadcasting and telecommunication equipment that will be sold in Korea are required to obtain a KC EMC Certification. EMC Certification confirms that a product is electromagnetically compatible with the environment in terms of emissions and interference, and poses no risk to a consumer.
The responsible institutions for KC EMC Certifications are the South Korean National Radio Research
Agency (RRA) and the Korean Communication Commission (KCC).
As wireless technologies become more and more prevalent in electronic devices, the KC EMC Certification is further gaining importance.
One essential aspect of KC EMC Certification is that it has two possible components. Apart from general electromagnetic compatibility testing common to many electronic devices, products with wireless and radio technology require separate KC EMC tests. This means that products incorporating Wifi, Bluetooth, RFID and other mobile communication technologies need to obtain two separate test reports when being certified under KC EMC Certification process.
Products which are not equipped with radio technologies consequently only require one test report under KC EMC. In general, the testing requirement for electromagnetic compatibility affects most electric products with frequencies over 9 kHz.
The process for the KC EMC Certification includes the submission of application documents to the authority and subsequent product testing in Korea after the authority has concluded their initial review of the submitted documents. Once testing has been completed and test reports have been issued, the RRA will issue the respective certificates to the applicants.
Upon completion of the certification process, the manufacturer must ensure the correct marking of the certified product. Apart from the KC logo, this also includes a specific identification code as defined by the certification authority. The specific coding varies depend on whether the product has been certified for electromagnetic compatibility, wireless technologies or both. The coding further specifies whether the applicant is the manufacturer, importer or seller of the respective product.
The last two parts of the code include a specific applicant code, issued by the RRA, and a product identification code. The product identification code can be specified by the applicant to include the model name, and can have a length of up to 14 digits.
In contrast to the KC Certification route, there is a distinction between applicant and manufacturer under KC EMC. This becomes especially relevant for foreign manufacturers that use Korean importers and sales organizations. In cases in which the local importer organizes the KC EMC certification and acts as the applicant, there is a certain lock-in effect for the foreign manufacturer. If a manufacturer wants to change their importer who applied for the original KC EMC certificate, that manufacturer must obtain the expressed permission of the named importer to change the certificates. Otherwise, the manufacturer must retest their equipment and obtain a new certification.
The KCs Certification is a special safety certification for machines. This is a certification scheme that is overseen by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) and requires certain potentially harmful machines or safety equipment to obtain the KCs Mark (“s” for safety).
This certification scheme comprises of two distinct types with different certification processes, namely the Certification of Compliance (CoC) and the Declaration of Conformity (DoC).
The CoC certification requires not only product tests but also an initial factory audit and annual follow-up inspections. In general, machines that are potentially harmful like presses, injection molding machines, sawing machines and pressure vessels fall under this category. Personal protective equipment like safe helmets, shoes, protective gloves or gas masks also require a KCs CoC certification.
Products are usually candidates for the Self-Declaration (DoC) if there is a risk of injury in the event that certain safety-related components fail. This includes products like grinders, mixers, conveyors and industrial robots. For completing the self-declaration process, product tests are usually required and can only be replaced by existing test reports under
Machines with explosion-proof capabilities that are used in hazardous zones can also fall under the KCs certification requirements. Especially when explosion-proof electrical components are built into machines, it is also possible that whole machine as well as the machine’s critical individual components will require certification. In such cases, the timeline of a certification process can increase substantially since the certification of the components usually needs to be completed first. Therefore, manufacturers of affected machines should clarify certification requirements with their component suppliers in advance. This can help with avoiding unnecessary delays and discussions over the allocation of responsibilities at later stages.
Normally the KCs certification is a manufacturer certification that also requires factory audits. However, foreign manufacturers of products or components that require a KCs CoC certification can also choose to obtain a so-called import certification via their importer. This allows for a one-time import of a maximum quantity of 10 products. With this certification method, the otherwise necessary factory audit is not required.
Under certain circumstances product tests can also be partially or sometimes even completely replaced with already existing test reports, provided that they are accepted and recognized by KOSHA. Even though replacing product tests could be another way to shorten the certification process, the authority usually requires additional time for a thorough examination of the documentation.
South Korea also recently reformed its regulations on chemical products by enacting the Household Chemical Products and Biocides Safety Acts (K-BPR) that took effect in 2019. This was an amendment to the existing regulation of chemicals known as Korea REACH (K-REACH), especially for certain products like cleansers, detergents, fabric softeners, deodorants and ink cartridges. These are now classified as household chemical products and regulated under K-BPR.
Certain products not only have to comply to applicable product safety and labelling regulations but are also subject to a safety confirmation. These products have to confirm their conformity by going through testing in designated labs every three years. Some biocidal products must also apply with the South Korean Ministry of Environment (MoE) for pre-market approval.
Even after the reform and simplification of the Korean certification system in 2009, it remains a challenge for companies to ensure that their products conform to all the current regulations and requirements and are correctly certified. As the Korean economy is advanced and mature, sudden regulatory changes are uncommon. Normally, sufficient transition periods are granted for companies to adapt their products or obtain necessary certifications (assuming, that is, that they remained informed about the status of requirements applicable to their products, and take timely action to remain compliant).
Staying on top of new developments in the regulatory arena is key to participating in the future growth and development of one of Asia’s most advanced and successful economies. And maintaining compliance with relevant consumer safety regulations is an important part of a successful business strategy for taking part in South Korea’s innovative marketplace and catering to their sophisticated consumers.