By Kyunghee Park and Seonjin Cha

Empty Containers Clog South Korea’s Busan Port as Trade Slumps

March 3 (Bloomberg) — South Korea’s biggest port is running out of room to store shipping containers, said Park Jung Ho, an official at one of Busan’s nine operators. The bigger concern is that the boxes are almost all empty.

Container trade at Busan, the world’s fifth-largest port, has fallen about 40 percent in recent months, said Park, at Busan International Terminal Co. Even by stacking boxes five deep and leasing a nearby lot, he barely has room for the 31,700 containers that have piled up on his wharves.

Empty containers, idled dockworkers and laid-up vessels have become a hallmark of ports from Singapore to Rotterdam that six months ago were straining to meet the flow of electronics, toys, cars and equipment.

Singapore, the world’s biggest container port, handled 1.97 million 20-foot containers in January, 20 percent less than a year earlier. In Shanghai, the second-largest, traffic was down 19 percent, while Hong Kong, the No. 3, suffered a 23 percent drop. Busan handled 894,172 20-foot standard containers in January, the fewest since February 2005, the Busan Port Authority said on its Web site.

While global shipyards are still working through contracts placed since 2006, new orders have plummeted in the past four months.

97 Percent Drop

A total of 153.6 million deadweight tons were ordered last year worldwide, 43 percent less than in 2007, Clarkson Plc, the world’s largest shipbroker, said in its monthly shipbuilding report. In January, 0.4 million tons were ordered, a 97 percent decline from the same month a year earlier, London-based Clarkson said.

On a recent Wednesday morning, 15 of 18 loading cranes on one pier were sitting idle because no vessels were docked. Less than six months ago, the 50-meter-tall blue-and-orange gantries could barely keep up, said Kim.

Ships that do dock carry only 30 percent of their capacity, said Ryoo Chi Ho at a local shipping company. “There are no vessels arriving or leaving the port fully loaded these days.”

“You hear about at least one manufacturer going bust every day,” said Chung Kyong Bo, an auto dealer in the city. “Hardly anybody buys or sells cars these days. And there are fears that the worst hasn’t hit us yet.”

Discount Apartments

In the upmarket beachside district of Haeundae, placards in bold, red words advertise new apartments at discounted prices. Shop windows around Kyungsung University are pasted with signs offering reductions on clothes, shoes and jewelry.

“There are fewer patients now at my husband’s dental clinic, and those who come want cheap jobs done on their teeth,” said Lim Jong Soon, a 36-year-old housewife. “Now instead of eating out at weekends, we eat at home.”

Like the ships in the port, the city’s cabs are also finding it harder to get business. Night clubs close six hours earlier than before because they’re empty, said Lee So Il, a 66- year-old taxi driver.

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