South Korea must work toward securing irreplaceable technologies in critical industries as the country looks to become a tech powerhouse, a top government official at the Ministry of Science and ICT says.
“Our country wants to become a strong country, but we are not a big country in terms of the (physical) size. So it’s impossible to have all technologies inside the house,” said Joo Young-chang, vice minister and the ministry's top innovation strategist, in an interview with The Korea Herald last week.
“We have to secure one to two irreplaceable technologies for the survival of our country in terms of security. The national strategic technologies are about finding what they are, drawing road maps and fostering them,” he said.
In October, the Science Ministry announced a list of 12 national strategic technologies it selected for future growth and in becoming a technological powerhouse. The technologies are semiconductor and display, secondary battery, cutting-edge mobility, next-generation nuclear power, future bio, aerospace and maritime technology, hydrogen, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, next-generation communication, future robotics and quantum.
Joo, who has a Ph.D. in materials science from MIT, gave the example of ASML -- the Dutch chip equipment giant -- in explaining why it should lock up critical technology.
“The Netherlands does not produce any semiconductors. But by having the ASML’s technology, it plays a very important role in the semiconductor industry’s valuation,” said Joo.
As ASML is the world’s sole supplier of extreme ultraviolet lithography systems, which are essential in putting the details on the most advanced chips, global chip giants are constantly competing to secure more of the scarce and costly ASML machines.
Asked how the ministry chose the 12 national strategic technologies, Joo pointed out that diplomacy and security were added to the government’s consideration.
“Up until now, the technologies raised by the government were focused on the economic perspectives such as trade, supply chain and nurturing new business. They say it’s the era of ‘techpolitics,’ not geopolitics. Technology affects security. So we added a new pillar of diplomacy and security,” he said.
The vice minister also underscored that the Yoon administration’s emphasis is more on mission-oriented research and development. He added that many of the previous state R&D projects had set target-oriented goals, which placed more weight on advancing technology itself.
In regard to cooperation with other countries, Joo said, “Science has no borders. But technology has borders. In terms of technology, strategies are becoming important.”
Taking the example of "Chip 4," Washington's envisioned semiconductor supply chain alliance including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the vice minister pointed out that where the country stands on such a delicate matter is critical and it cannot be made diplomatically without knowing the technology of semiconductors.
The Korean government has not declared any official stance on whether it will join Chip 4 amid ongoing tensions between China and the US.
“In technology, the Galapagos Islands eventually falls behind. I believe it is of great importance to wisely decide and approach the matter as we put both the nurturing and protection aspects into account,” he said.
Joo added that it is crucial to not only protect the country’s own technology but also pick whom Korea is going to raise the technology with, reiterating the role of his unit under the Science Ministry.
“If we can figure out what technologies are fit for us and intensively support them, I believe Korea can keep the security, raise industries and lay the stepping stones to becoming a top five powerhouse,” he said.