South Korea unveils $600 billion push for global chipmaking crown

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix will lead the ambitious push of investment in semiconductor research and production.
Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix will lead the ambitious push of investment in semiconductor research and production.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korea unveiled ambitious plans to spend roughly more than 510 trillion won (S$602 billion) to build the world's biggest chipmaking base over the next decade, joining China and the United States in a global race to dominate the key technology.

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix will lead the ambitious push of investment in semiconductor research and production in the years to 2030 under a national blueprint devised by President Moon Jae-in's administration.

They will be among 153 companies fuelling the decade-long push, intended to safeguard the nation's most economically crucial industry. Mr Moon got a briefing from chip executives on the initiative on Thursday (May 13) during a visit to the country's most advanced chip factory, a Samsung plant south of Seoul.

Samsung is boosting its spending by 30 per cent to US$151 billion through 2030 while Hynix is committing US$97 billion to expand existing facilities, in addition to its US$106 billion plan for four new plants in Yongin, co-chief executive officer Park Jung-ho said during the event.

The investment comes at a time when the US, China and the European Union seek to shore up their semiconductor capabilities after a global chip shortage exposed a reliance on just a handful of Asian manufacturers and hobbled efforts to repair pandemic-scarred economies.

The shortages are now spreading from autos to smartphones and displays, elevating semiconductors onto the agendas of governments from Washington to Brussels and Beijing.

At stake is a technology fundamental to groundbreaking advances from artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles and connected homes.

South Korea, a security ally of the US and a major exporter to China, has been walking a tightrope between the two while bolstering its own production prowess. Semiconductors account for the largest share of South Korea's exports and chip exports are expected to double to US$200 billion by 2030, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said.

Likening semiconductors to rice - a global dietary staple - the ministry called them "strategic weapons" in a race for superior technology intensifying among not just firms, but also nations.

The government seeks to build a "K-semiconductor belt" that stretches dozens of kilometers south of Seoul and brings together chip designers, manufacturers and suppliers, according to the ministry.

Samsung and Hynix make the majority of the world's memory chips, basic semiconductors that handle storage for all devices.

But one area South Korea has been lagging in is the ability to produce advanced logic chips that handle complex calculations for tasks like AI and data processing, a specialty dominated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, which makes Apple's iPhone processors.

Samsung aims to compete more aggressively in this area, securing some of Nvidia Corp's graphics card business and pursuing a bigger share of Qualcomm's mobile chips. Hynix too has announced ambitions to get into logic chips.

The Korean government will incentivise its domestic industry with tax breaks, lower interest rates, eased regulations and reinforced infrastructure, hoping to see its chipmakers make up the distance from the global leaders, the ministry said.

The government will also secure adequate water supply for the next 10 years in the targeted region and reinforce power supplies, both essential to advanced chipmaking factories.

Seoul's blueprint echoes efforts under way around the world.

US President Joe Biden wants to dedicate US$50 billion to US semiconductor research and production, part of an overall ambition to safeguard America's supply chains. And China has earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars towards developing its own chipmaking industry, wary of a reliance on Western-designed imports.

South Korea also aims to attract additional foreign investment in advanced technology. Dutch semiconductor equipment maker ASML Holdings signalled it intends to spend 240 billion won to build a training center in Hwaseong while California-based Lam Research Corp plans to double its capacity in the country, the ministry said.

In terms of direct contributions, the country wants to help train 36,000 chip experts between 2022 and 2031, contribute 1.5 trillion won towards chip research and development and will start discussing legislation tailored to assist the semiconductor industry.