NEXT year could be a very difficult time for South Korean shipbuilders, according to Mr Yong Lee, executive vice-president of the shipbuilding and offershore division of Samsung Heavy Industries. He said the flurry of orders seen this year by Korean yards was faltering, although most Korean yards were booked solid until the end of 1995. ''Unless freight rates improve further, we are not going to see many orders in the first half of next year,'' Mr Lee said. Mr Lee was in Hong Kong this week to hand over the Stuttgart Express, the 4,422-TEU (20-ft equivalent units) ship Samsung completed this month, to the owner Hepag-Lloyd of Germany. He said the South Korean builders were reluctant to compete with Japanese yards which were adopting very aggressive strategies, including price-cutting and easy financing schemes, to fill up the vacancies for the fourth quarter of 1995. He said the shrinking vacancy rate at Japanese yards was causing worries among Korean builders. ''We (Korean builders) can wait for six months, but we will have to start offering competition to the Japanese in the second half of next year.'' He said by that time tanker owners around the world would have to start thinking of placing new building orders. More than 50 per cent of the world's tanker fleet was built 15 years ago and needs to be replaced with more modern double-hull ships to comply with US Oil Pollution Act 1990. If the owners failed to make up their mind, the Korean yards would face ''some difficult times'' next year, he said. South Korean shipyards won orders for 167 ships of 8.97 million gross registered tonnes (grt) in the first 11 months of this year, up from 42 vessels of 1.34 million grt a year earlier. In November alone, the Korean yards received orders for five ships totalling 47,298 grt, all from overseas shipowners, against two ships of 9,800 grt a year ago. The high yen is pricing Japan out of the market and shipowners this year turned to South Korea. Mr Lee expects this year's order book to close at about nine million grt worth about US$8.5 billion. Of this, Samsung will account for 35 ships aggregating two million grt. Samsung delivered 12 ships this year, leaving a backlog of 40 vessels. With the government ban on shipyard expansion and new entry into the business coming to an end this month, Korean builders are preparing to implement their expansion plans. Samsung, which is the smallest among the four major yards, will start building its third drydock this year, which will have an annual capacity of 500,000 tonnes. Built on a 660,000-sq-metre site at its Koje shipyard, the 400-metre dock will cost US$200 million dock. and is expected to become operational in early 1995. Staff dormitories and a ship design centre built on the site last year have already been demolished and excavation work will start in earnest next year, Mr Lee said.