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Russia may replace Japan exports

‘Higher purity’ of chemical alleged but tests still needed
July 13,2019
The Russian government has recently conveyed to Seoul that it can provide hydrogen fluoride - one of three materials on Japan’s export restriction list - to Korean companies in the semiconductor industry, a high-level Blue House official said Friday.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Seoul was currently “reviewing” the option, without specifying further. The comment came after local daily Hankyoreh cited an unidentified Korean government official in saying that Moscow relayed the suggestion to Seoul through a “diplomatic channel.”

The report said that Kim Young-ju, chairman of the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), informed business leaders at the Blue House Wednesday that the Russian government told the Korean Embassy in Moscow it had “better technology” than Japan at producing hydrogen fluoride and that it was capable of providing Samsung Electronics with higher-purity hydrogen fluoride.

Hydrogen fluoride is used as an etching gas for making chips. According to data from KITA, 46.3 percent of Korea’s hydrogen fluoride imports came from China between January and May this year, while 43.9 percent came from Japan, 9.7 percent from Taiwan and 0.1 percent from India.

The first hint from the Blue House that Korea was considering Russian imports of the chemical came Wednesday after President Moon Jae-in met with the heads of the nation’s top 30 companies and four major business lobbying groups at the presidential office to discuss Japan’s restrictions on exports of three key industrial materials to Korea.

Following the meeting, Moon’s spokesperson Ko Min-jung briefed reporters that the business tycoons agreed on the need to localize production of key materials through the diversification of suppliers. Some attendees, she noted, suggested that cooperation with Russia and Germany should be expanded because of their expertise in chemicals.

Spokespeople of Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, companies which heavily rely on Japanese imports for the chemical, refused to elaborate on Russia’s suggestion Friday, telling the JoongAng Ilbo that it was difficult to publicly speak about the matter because the proposal wasn’t raised “directly” to them. The sources did say, however, that the companies never used Russia-produced hydrogen fluoride in its production lines before.

Samsung officials said their company was currently seeking new suppliers of hydrogen fluoride from Taiwan and China, while officials from SK Hynix said they were doing the same in Taiwan.

Even if Seoul gives the green light to Russian imports, local industry pundits say companies will find it highly difficult to actually use the chemicals on their lines without knowing their possible impact on the products.

“Even the tiniest difference in raw materials could lead to a flaw in a product, so companies want to import raw materials from verified suppliers only,” said an industry source. “You never know how chemicals from a new supplier will affect your products before putting them through tests.”

Those tests, other industry pundits pointed out, could take as long as over two months for hydrogen fluoride.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM YOUNG-MIN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]