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Japan green lights photoresists exports again

Aug 21,2019
Japan approved a shipment of extra ultraviolet (EUV) photoresists to Korea for the second time since its export restrictions began on July 4.

Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said Tuesday that Tokyo green lit the shipment of EUV photoresists to Korea on Monday, 12 days after the last permit was passed.

According to a government official, both shipments were to Korean chip giant Samsung Electronics.

The photoresists, which are essential for manufacturing semiconductor chips, were one of three key materials that Japan started restricting on July 4. The other two are hydrogen fluoride, or etching gas, and fluorinated polyimide. The Japanese government cited the possibility of those materials being used for nefarious purposes like building strategic weapons.

Under the export measures, Japanese companies now have to individually apply for approval to export the materials to Korea, and the process can take up to 90 days.

So far, the Japanese government has not approved exports of hydrogen fluoride or fluorinated polyimide to Korea.

Although photoresists are essential for chipmaking, Samsung is the only consumer of EUV photoresists in Korea, according to industry sources.

Some analysts believe that Tokyo’s approval signals a shift in the trade row that had escalated in the past few weeks as both countries removed each other from their so-called white lists of trusted trade partners.

“It’s a positive signal as it is an additional approval,” said Mun Byung-ki, a senior researcher at the Korea International Trade Association. “Japan ultimately seems to be closely monitoring the impact on its companies and its economy following the restrictions [...] it would be rational for both sides to come to talks for a resolution.”

But there is also skepticism that the approval is a first step towards an easing of tensions between the two countries.

“This is like much-needed rain in a drought,” said a semiconductor industry official who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “[However,] we can’t call this [anything like] a solution. Only one of the three materials has received approvals, and the restrictions, in the first place, were never an actual export ban.”

This was a sentiment shared by the Blue House.

“There are still uncertainties about supply,” said a Blue House official on Tuesday. “We can only acknowledge a change in Japan’s stance if its restrictions on the three materials and [Korea’s] removal from its white list are quickly withdrawn.”

Kim Sang-jo, the Blue House’s policy chief, had said earlier this month, following the first export approval of photoresists, that Tokyo’s move was merely part of a strategic game. It was trying to position itself before the issue was dealt with by the World Trade Organization, he said, which will determine whether the measures taken by Tokyo are a violation of international trade rules.

Kim argued in a radio interview that the first approval was a message to the global audience that the measures were not especially discriminatory against Korea and not any kind of resolution of the trade spat.

Japan’s first approval of the EUV photoresists came 36 days after the export restriction went into effect. It’s the same kind of approval needed by countries like Taiwan or China that are not on Japan’s white list of 27 countries. Such approval takes between four to six weeks to process.

Japan earlier this month excluded Korea from its so-called white list of trusted trading partners.

BY CHAE YUN-HWAN AND SONG KYOUNG-SON [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]