Visitors peruse semiconductors at a Samsung location in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

If the supply of Korean-made dynamic random access memory chips is suspended for two months, it will disrupt the production of 230 million mobile phones worldwide, a top-level South Korean government official said. DRAM production could be disrupted on account of a historical and trade dispute with Japan.

Kim Hyun-chong, deputy director of the South Korean presidential National Security Office, said Monday in an interview with a Korean radio show, “Japan also relies on us. For example, we have 72.4% of the market share in the global DRAM market. Now we are making 10-nano-level chips, and our competitors in the US and China are 20-30 nano chips. We’re going with a 7-nano process soon.”

“If the supply of DRAMs is stopped for two months, there will be a setback in making 230 million smartphones around the world,” he said. “That could be our response [to the Japanese measure] or a retaliatory measure.”

One nano is one-billionth of a meter thick. In semiconductor production, nano indicates the degree of circuit width. The lower the figure, the more refined the process a chip maker achieved to improve the performance of chips and reduce costs.

Seoul has revealed a counter-offensive card that would involve excluding Japan from its “white list” of countries favored in trade after Tokyo tightened restrictions on exports of key semiconductor materials to Korea and took Korea off its own white list.

A government official told Asia Times early this month that if Japan is excluded from the Korean white list, restrictions on the export of DRAMs to Japan could be tightened.

“The strategic materials related to the white-list countries are similar around the world. They are mostly parts and materials,” he said. “Since DRAM is also a part, DRAM export to Japan could be tightly controlled if Japan is excluded from our white list.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the South Korean government will weaponize DRAMs.

“I think it would be best if we catch up with Japan or outpace Japan in terms of technology to produce [strategically important] parts, materials and electronics, and fourth industrial revolution-related products,” said Kim.

Regarding the economic impact of Japans’s white-list measure that excluded Korea, Kim said, “The strategic materials that really affect us are a handful.” He added that upon review of the 1,194 strategic materials whose export to non-white-list countries is restricted, “we realized that it wouldn’t affect our economy as much as expected.”

Amid criticism that Washington needs to play a role in resolving trade conflicts between South Korea and Japan, Kim said he was not asking the US to mediate between the two countries.

“If I ask for arbitration from the US, I’m sure there will be a ‘bill’ for their work, so why would I ask for it?” he said.

Asked if Korea would scrap the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement, Kim said Seoul would “consider it carefully. ”

Japan and Korea signed GSOMIA on November 11, 2016, to share information on national security matters such as North Korean nuclear and missile tests. Some Korean lawmakers and activists urged the government to sever the agreement after Tokyo tightened export control against Korea,

Kim said that, in the long run, Korea should depend less on trade in economic growth and outpace Japan in terms of technology, stressing that it should secure competent researchers and engineers and give sufficient incentives for acquiring foreign companies in key technology sectors.

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