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South Korea: Caught in the Crosshairs of U.S.−China Competition Over Semiconductors
Published January 4, 2024
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This paper explores how countries with advanced semiconductor industries are caught in the middle of the growing U.S.-China competition in technology that is focused on advanced computing. Among them, South Korea and its national champions, Samsung and SK Hynix, have arguably incurred some of the most significant pressure. This paper explores how those firms have billions of dollars of sunk investment in China-based facilities producing cutting-edge memory, and the future of these facilities remains in doubt after a series of U.S. export control measures unleashed by the U.S. Commerce Department starting in October 2022. South Korean companies are also players in other parts of the global semiconductor supply chain, including semiconductor manufacturing tools, and China remains an important market for both components and electronic devices. This paper argues that each country caught between the United States and China in technology competition faces difficult trade-offs in determining how best to support its leading companies while navigating changing and often what is viewed as arbitrary decisions coming from Washington that have already significantly disrupted global supply chains. Finally, at the same time as U.S. export controls are having a major impact on the ability of South Korean companies to retain business operations and market access in China, major front-end manufacturers, particularly Samsung, are also looking to expand their operations in the United States and benefit from U.S. CHIPS Act funding. This paper argues that all of the above dynamics put South Korea in one of the more complex positions as the industry faces continued restructuring, buffeted by both export controls and industrial policies.

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