Semiconductor War between Japan and South Korea

Authors: Gleb Toropchin and Anastasia Tolstukhina

In the summer of 2019, a trade conflict broke out between Tokyo and Seoul and the matter is about more than the history between the two countries. The two developed economies have long been locked in a competition on the global cutting-edge technologies market. At the same time, they are links in the same technological chain.

At first glance, the exchange of trade restrictions that is taking place against the background of mutual accusations is nobody’s business but Tokyo and Seoul’s. Nonetheless, the consequences of the confrontation between the two countries have a global nature. The present article analyses the causes of the disagreements and looks at how the situation may develop

Introducing Restrictions and Removal from the “White List”

Despite the events of the colonial past [1], as well as the current territorial disputes that are so typical of Asia’s international politics [2], South Korea is one of Japan’s three largest trade partners. Japan exports into South Korea up to $54 billion in goodsThe key commodities include semiconductors and materials for their manufacture

The dependence of South Korean companies on imports of fluorinated polyimides and photoresists exceeds 90 percent, and their dependence on imports of hydrogen fluoride is around 44 percent (although this figure has fallen gradually from 72 percent in 2010)

However, on July 1, 2019, the Government of Japan announced restrictions on the export of commodities to South Korea that are of critical importance for microelectronics, and on July 4, the changes to the procedure came into force

Given the long-established delivery mechanism, such a political step was a surprise for many. The restrictions mainly affected three key materials for the microelectronics industry: fluorinated polyimides, hydrogen fluoride, and photoresists (these materials are used in the manufacturing of semiconductors and display panels). This measure does not mean that deliveries of these materials to South Korea have been completely stopped; however, from now on, it may take up to 90 days to approve transactions. Additionally, Japan said it would be taking South Korea off its “white list” of trade partners. The list includes states that are believed to be safe from the point of view of exporting strategic commodities and that are granted trade preferences

Let us try to understand why the Government of Japan took such steps

Pressure from Taiwanese and South Korean competitors

In 1986, an agreement was signed between Tokyo and Washington that prohibited Japan from undercutting global semiconductor prices. This step was initially intended to make the United States more competitive. However, even in those circumstances, Japan managed to take a significant chunk of the global semiconductor market from the United States in the late 20th century and retain its high positions until the 2010s. However, as early as 2012, experts noted that pressure from Taiwanese and South Korean competitors resulted in semiconductor sales of Japan’s four chip-makers, Toshiba, Renesas, Sony and Fujitsu taking a marked dip

Samsung Electronics succeeded in mastering the subtleties of developing technologies just at the right time, while Japan began to lag behind in R&D due to problems with formal education, and its revenues from global sales of microelectronics were falling against the backdrop of falling prices and the high exchange rate of the Japanese yen. Among other causes of this phenomenon, Japanese experts cite the desire to create hi-tech goods without account for high costs, and lack of innovative ideas

Today, South Korea is the leading manufacturer of memory microchips. Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix hold two-thirds of the global market. Additionally, both the United States’ Apple and China’s Huawei depend on the products produced by South Korean companies. Integrated circuit units account for 17 percent of South Korea’s exports (the entire microelectronics sector accounts for nearly a quarter of its exports), compared to less than 4 percent for Japan

An analysis of the global microelectronics market demonstrates that, currently, the market particularly values dynamic random-access memory semiconductors (DRAMS) that hold tremendous significance for such cutting-edge technologies as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and robotics. South Korea holds impressive positions in this area as well: Samsung and SK Hynix control 72.8 percent of the DRAMS market and 46.8 percent of the global flash memory market

Reasons for Introducing Restrictive Measures

The East Asia Forum reports that Japan’s strategy of opposing Seoul was developed jointly by the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The Cabinet of Ministers subsequently supported these measures, thereby making the key decision to transfer the issue into the political realm

It appears that Japan’s decision to impose restrictive measures was prompted by the fact that the country has clearly fallen behind technologically on the global microelectronic market, which negatively affects both the country’s economic indicators and its national security

According to the expert June Park, the Government of Japan decided to institute the restrictive measures out of concern for national security, since, in exporting rare materials to South Korea, Tokyo cannot be certain they will be used properly

The Japan Times notes that Tokyo justifies the introduction of increasingly strict export requirements by claiming that confidence in South Korea has been undermined. In particular, some media outlets report that between 2015 and March 2019, no fewer than 156 materials, including hydrogen fluoride, were smuggled out of South Korea. There were also reports of hydrogen fluoride being exported to countries that are under international sanctions (Iran, Syria and even North Korea). Another reason for the restrictions is Tokyo’s concerns that South Korea violates intellectual property rights

South Korea denies all accusations. Its arguments are logical: Iran and Syria are friends of North Korea, therefore, Seoul has no reasons to help their regimes. President of South Korea Moon Jae-in called for the differences to be resolved by diplomatic means. However, the talks held on July 12, 2019, in Tokyo did not yield any results. Consequently, Moon Jae-in instructed the relevant agencies to develop reciprocal measures. At about the same time, there were reports of South Korea possibly filing a grievance with the World Trade Organization. As a result, hearings on the issue were launched in Geneva on July 24, 2019

In late July 2019, news broke that Tokyo was considering further restrictions since Japan believes the re-selling of strategic materials by Seoul to be a violation of the non-proliferation regimes regarding both weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons. In this case, the restrictions would extend to other types of commodities and materials. On August 2, the Cabinet of Japan approved the decision to take South Korea off its “white list” (where the Republic of Korea was the only Asian state), thereby depriving it of trade preferences in regard to the materials mentioned above. The full list exceeds 1100 items

Despite these events, several deliveries of these materials from Japan to South Korea were made in August. However, they did not result in a thaw in bilateral relations. Seoul reciprocated by putting Japan on a restrictive trade list and terminating the military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo

“Wu Wei” American Style

China holds leading positions in deposits of rare-earth metals. Moreover, approximately 90 percent of the world’s rare-earth magnets are manufactured in China. Japanese companies use China’s raw materials to manufacture fluorinated polyimides, hydrogen fluoride and photoresists that are subsequently supplied to South Korea, Taiwan and other countries to be used in manufacturing chips, displays, etc. The circle is complete when these commodities go back to China to be used in the manufacture of finished products (such as smartphones and tablets), creating a sort of a closed-loop. Thus, the manufacture of competitive hi-tech products today is impossible within a single economy, and Chinese companies depend on parts coming from other Asian countries

Tracing the entire technological chain, we can assume that the Japan–South Korea conflict is closely linked to the trade war between China and the United States. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics is hindered by the restrictions on deliveries of Huawei memory chips since the latter is under U.S. sanctions. In turn, interrupting the chain of semiconductors delivery from South Korea will slow down the development of artificial intelligence in China. And who benefits from this? This is a rhetorical question

It would seem that the United States should be interested in cordial relations between their allies in the region, allies that form a sort of counterbalance to China and are ideological antagonists to North Korea. The White House, however, intentionally or unintentionally, demonstrates adherence to the Taoist principle of inaction, or “wu wei” (无为 in simplified Chinese), which entails a conscious refusal to act and the assumption of a contemplative stance. From the outset of the confrontation in July 2019, the United States announced it would not interfere in the conflict. Despite individual experts calling upon the United States to act as an intermediary between the two Asian states, Washington did not change its position

We should also note here that the Japanese company Toshiba announced the construction of a facility for the production of NAND-type (from the English NOT-AND, that is, a binary logical element) flash memory devices in Iwate Prefecture in cooperation with U.S. chip manufacturer Western Digital. We can cautiously assume that the United States and Japan are progressing toward a “technological union” in order to defeat China in the race for domination of the semiconductor industry

Public Opinion

Speaking of the impact that the conflict has on public opinion in both countries, we can quote a survey conducted by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in mid-September 2019. Overall, slightly less than one third (29 per cent) of respondents admitted that they had a negative opinion of South Korea. This was far more pronounced among older people, which can be linked to their conservative views and the “proximity aberration” phenomenon (put simply, the older generations remember the events of the 20th century well)

As for South Korea, an anti-Japanese “grassroots” campaign has been launched in addition to the “top-down” process. In the second half of the summer of 2019, slogans『 가지않습니다 사지않습니다 』 (Korean for “Do not visit, do not buy”) calling for boycotting trips to Japan and Japanese goods spread on Korean social networks. And it looks like they were successful to a degree. For instance, the Yonhap News Agency reports that the number of South Koreans travelling to Japan in August fell by 60 per cent compared to the same period last year

In the run-up to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the trade conflict has become a reason for manipulating public opinion in South Korea. Additionally, we cannot rule out the possibility that populists use the disagreements between Japan and South Korea to advance their domestic agenda on the eve of the elections to South Korea’s unicameral parliament scheduled for April 15, 2020

Forecast: Cloudy in the East

Losses from the Japan–South Korea trade war may exceed $80 billion. There has already been a drop in sales of South Korean semiconductors manufactured by Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Moreover, the conflict threatens to disrupt the entire global technological production chain in microelectronics. The expert Robert Farley described this conflict (and the U.S.–China trade war) as “weaponizing interdependence.” One of the analysts with The Economist Intelligence Unit called this situation “mutually assured destruction.”

The Yonhap News reports that the consequences of the trade conflict have had greater negative effect on the Japanese economy than on the South Korean economy. For instance, in July–August, South Korean exports to Japan have fallen by 3.5 per cent, while Japanese exports to South Korea have dropped 8.1 per cent

The South Korean economy has also suffered against the backdrop of these events. Here, Seoul has only two ways out of this predicament:

-Transitioning to domestic analogues, which LG Display and Samsung Electronics already did in September of this year. Additionally, the country earmarked 2.1 trillion South Korean won in the 2020 budget to overcome the dependence on the export of rare materials from Japan

-Searching for alternative sources of hydrogen fluoride and other rare materials for microelectronics. Media outlets have reported that Russia might be a potential supplier of high-purity hydrogen fluoride. The head of the Korea International Trade Association said that Moscow had offered to supply hydrogen fluoride to Seoul. However, it is not easy for South Korean companies to transition to Russian imports of this and other materials for microelectronics. The physical and chemical properties of the products must be tested for a rather lengthy period of time (upwards of six months)

Apparently, the status quo on the microelectronic market will continue in the short-term, and both parties will seek ways to minimize losses. And we can already see evidence of this. In September and October, the Government of Japan approved deliveries of hydrogen fluoride to Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix

At the same time, if Tokyo and Seoul fail to find common ground in the medium and long term, then the current global technological chain in microelectronics may be dismantled, which will, of course, negatively affect the growth rate of the global economy. However, so as not to end our study on a pessimistic note, let us note that, under the current circumstances, many hi-tech companies around the world, including those in Russia, now have the chance to become new links in the value chain and occupy its niche in microelectronics

From our partner RIAC

[1] In 1910, the Empire of Japan annexed the entire Korean peninsula. Korea essentially became a Japanese colony. The Japanese language and culture were forced onto the Korean people. Up to 200,000 ethnic Koreans served in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II (including future president of South Korea and “father of the economic miracle” Park Chung-hee). Today, Japanese war crimes are a subject of talks between South Korea and Japan. In 2015, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida promised 1 billion yen to the victims of violence in compensation, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered a public apology for Japan’s actions during the war.

[2] The dispute concerns the Liancourt Rocks, a group of small islets that the Koreans call Dokdo (“Solitary Islands”) and the Japanese call Takeshima (“Bamboo Islands”). Back in the early 20th century, Japan claimed sovereignty over these islands; however, following its defeat in World War II, it was forced to abandon its colonial acquisitions. On the other hand, the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco does not mention this territory, which gives Japan formal grounds to dispute the sovereignty of the islands where South Korea maintains military and civil infrastructure.

Gleb Toropchin
Gleb Toropchin
Ph.D. in History, Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, Novosibirsk State Technical University; Associate Professor, Novosibirsk State University of Economics and Management; RIAC expert