US urges South Korea to join the China sanctions regime, adjust export controls to prevent the country from getting chipmaking tools

(Image credit: Samsung)

One way China's chip manufacturers have been getting advanced chip fabrication equipment capable of making processors on 14nm and smaller process technologies is through South Korea. The U.S. government is now working with its peers in the country to adopt export restrictions on semiconductor technology to China. These restrictions are akin to those imposed by Washington, reports Bloomberg.

The U.S.'s proposition to South Korea includes limiting exports of fab tools and parts for fab tools that could be used to build logic chips in non-planar 14nm process technologies. The limitations would also impact more advanced nodes and DRAM on nodes with an 18nm or smaller half-pitch size. This move aligns with measures the U.S. Department of Commerce introduced in 2022, which Japan, the Netherlands, and Taiwan then adopted.

However, South Korea is treading cautiously due to its significant trade ties with China. Major South Korean tech firms, such as Samsung and SK Hynix, have substantial operations there. As a result, South Korean officials are concerned about the potential repercussions, including retaliatory measures from China, that could arise from imposing export controls on wafer fab tools.

Samsung and SK Hynix are the world's largest 3D NAND and DRAM memory manufacturers, and they are the largest memory suppliers in China. While replacing them today with China-based YMTC, CXMT, and Xi'an UniIC is impossible, China may still retaliate. South Korea is also a major exporter of chipmaking materials and parts to China, ranking second after Japan.

South Korea is exploring a multinational framework to review export controls for sensitive products, including semiconductor-related equipment. This approach, articulated by the country's trade minister, Cheong Inkyo, may complicate U.S. efforts to curtail China's influence on technology supply chains, reports Bloomberg.

U.S. officials have held detailed discussions with the South Korean government, led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, to persuade Seoul to agree to these restrictions before the upcoming G7 summit in mid-June. Given the complexities involved, it's currently unclear whether South Korea will cooperate. Either way, implementing any export restrictions by South Korea is expected to take several months, and the People's Republic will have time to buy everything it needs in the interim.

Anton Shilov
Freelance News Writer

Anton Shilov is a Freelance News Writer at Tom’s Hardware US. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.