South Korea has pressed charges against a former Samsung executive accused of stealing company secrets worth hundreds of millions of dollars to establish a replica chip factory in China, prosecutors confirmed on Tuesday. The issue of semiconductors has escalated into a contentious matter between the United States and China, as both countries engage in a fierce battle for chip-making technology and supplies.
According to South Korean prosecutors, the 65-year-old former Samsung employee allegedly pilfered the company’s factory blueprints and clean-room designs between 2018 and 2019. The Suwon district prosecutor’s office revealed that he attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to establish a copycat production facility in Xian, a Chinese city where Samsung already operates a chip factory.
The suspect, who remains unidentified and is currently in custody awaiting trial, purportedly stole material classified by South Korea as a “national core technology.” This category includes technologies that, if disclosed overseas, could potentially jeopardize national security and the economy. Prosecutors formally charged him on Monday and stated that he is a “top expert in semiconductor manufacturing” with decades of experience in the industry.
South Korean authorities estimated that the stolen information would have been valued at a minimum of 300 billion won ($236 million) for Samsung. Prosecutors emphasized the severity of the crime, stating, “It is a serious crime that can have a tremendous negative impact on our economic security by shaking the foundation of the domestic semiconductor industry at a time when competition for chip production is intensifying every day. The semiconductor industry accounted for 16.5 percent of South Korea’s total exports in 2022… and is a national security asset.”
Additionally, six other individuals who collaborated with the accused executive have been charged for their suspected involvement in the theft. When approached by AFP for comment on Tuesday, Samsung declined to provide a statement.
This incident comes in the midst of escalating tensions surrounding the semiconductor industry, with the Netherlands and Japan imposing their own restrictions this year without explicitly naming China. Beijing has strongly condemned these limitations, accusing Washington of engaging in “technological terrorism.” Last month, China announced that US chip giant Micron had failed a national security review and directed operators of “critical information infrastructure” to cease purchasing its products. Analysts have interpreted this move as retaliatory action in response to US semiconductor restrictions.
As the legal proceedings unfold, this case highlights the significance of safeguarding intellectual property and the increasing challenges faced by nations seeking to protect their technological advancements in the global semiconductor race.