To say that South Korea is in a period of transition would be an understatement. As if the looming presidential election and proposal to end the war with the North were not enough, China is becoming an increasingly polarizing wedge issue in South Korea’s partisan political landscape. As a result, and despite the country’s own inspiring transition to full democracy, South Korean leaders have been hesitant to speak up about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Technology offers a clear path for closer U.S.-ROK cooperation that falls squarely in line with both countries’ interests. Under the Moon and Biden administrations, the United States and Republic of Korea are already expanding cooperation beyond traditional security concerns—but can take additional steps toward building resilient supply chains, resisting industrial espionage, and strengthening people-to-people exchanges around emerging and foundational technologies. Such a partnership is not only imperative for the U.S.-ROK security relationship, but also promises to promote economic development in both countries.
The State of U.S.-China Technological Competition
Despite some efforts to cool or even “reset” their relationship, it is clear that the United States and China are in a period of enduring competition. In an October speech, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai set the bar low, clarifying that the Biden administration’s objective is “durable coexistence” with China. Amid growing hostility between the Republican and Democratic parties of the United States, China is often described as “the last bipartisan issue left in Washington.”
With respect to technology, the U.S.-China competition is crystallizing around a handful of core industries. Both U.S. and Chinese military strategies and economic development plans have come to focus on AI, autonomous systems, quantum computing, semiconductors, and the bioeconomy. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, for example, lists these technologies as the country’s top five research priorities for the first half of the 2020s. Moreover, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center recently warned that companies working in these industries are at risk of foreign espionage and IP theft—a concern repeated by other Five Eyes intelligence agencies.
South Korea plays a crucial role in each of these five axes of U.S.-China technology competition, with the clearest examples being information technology, robotics, and microelectronics. As the country’s top export, South Korea’s supply of integrated circuits is one of its most important strategic assets. Supported by industry titans such as Samsung and Hynix, the Moon Jae-in administration in May launched a blueprint for South Korea to become the world leader in chip manufacturing by 2030, committing more than $450 billion to build new fabrication facilities over the next decade.
In biotechnology, South Korean investments are also beginning to pay dividends. In 2006, it became one of the first countries in Asia to focus on the bioeconomy, launching “Bio-Vision 2016” to set targets for biotechnology development. Each year, the Blue House dedicates billions of dollars to biotechnology research and education, and Seoul is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing synthetic biology startups and biofoundries—which partner with similar institutions in both the United States and China.
Finally, in quantum computing, South Korea plans to build on its legacy of designing world-class conventional computer processors. In 2019, for example, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced its intent to build a reliable 5-qubit quantum processor by 2023, backed by $40 million in research funding. South Korean telecom companies, such as SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus, are also attempting to commercialize some applications of quantum cryptography. This progress is also helping the South Korean government promote its ideas in international standards-setting bodies like the International Electrotechnical Commission.
What Washington Wants
Against the backdrop of heightening U.S.-China competition, the United States under Presidents Trump and Biden has exerted significant pressure on South Korea, on issues ranging from troop basing to relations with Japan. Perhaps more than any other issue, it is true that the mismatch in U.S. and South Korean willingness to push back against China has contributed to friction in the broader U.S.-ROK relationship.
But on the topic of technology, the United States’ outlook aligns very closely with that of South Korea. In May, the Moon and Biden administrations announced a comprehensive partnership to deepen cooperation on technical and economic issues. Based on their shared experiences and complementary interests, Seoul and Washington should be able to further expand technology cooperation in at least three key areas. These include building resilient supply chains, coordinating to resist Chinese industrial espionage, and promoting the exchange of human capital.
First, the United States and South Korea are cooperating to build resilient supply chains for crucial commodities such as semiconductors. Amid the U.S. push to onshore semiconductor manufacturing, for example, Samsung stands to benefit uniquely from the proposed CHIPS for America Act, and is planning to build a new foundry in Texas with the help of grant funding. The White and Blue Houses both view semiconductor fabrication as a strategic imperative—partly to hedge against a crisis over Taiwan, and partly to stay competitive with rapid advances in China’s own chip manufacturing industry. Together with South Korea, the Biden administration aims to promote “mutual and complementary” investments in semiconductors.
Second, the United States hopes to steel its allies against Chinese industrial and economic espionage—of which South Korea is a primary target. In a May report for the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), Emily Weinstein, Anna Puglisi, and I found that Chinese “S&T diplomats” had identified dozens of institutions in South Korea as potential sources of IP and equipment, and took special interest in synthetic biology and 5G research projects sponsored by government-funded labs.
In response to an audit by the South Korean National Intelligence Service, Seoul has since toughened penalties for technology leaks and listed high-tech trade secrets as “national core technologies,” but further action is needed to prevent the outflow of equipment and IP. Since 1987, the United States and Korea have coordinated to protect strategic commodities and technical data from foreign exploitation—yet gaps in the export control regimes of both countries permit the Chinese military to access U.S. and Korean technology and capital. This is precisely why the Moon and Biden administrations have supported the creation of a bilateral investment screening cooperation working group.
Finally, the United States and South Korea both stand to gain from improving people-to-people exchanges and hosting rotations of high-level experts in fields such as AI and quantum computing. In early 2020, a CSET report identified South Korea as an optimal U.S. partner for sharing knowledge and best practices about AI, especially given the country’s robust AI sector and growing network of machine learning professionals. Although this is an established objective in the Moon-Biden statement, both countries have so far been slow to establish a formal, replicable mechanism to exchange high-level talent.
The Value Proposition for Seoul
A popular refrain holds that, in the context of U.S.-China relations, South Korea is a shrimp “trapped” between two whales. In particular, the memory of Beijing’s 2017 fabricated consumer boycott against South Korean cultural and consumer goods looms heavy in the Blue House, and constrains South Korea’s willingness to cooperate with the United States in issues beyond security affairs.
Yet, when it comes to technology development, it is difficult for any state to distinguish between national “economic” and “security” interests. The five emerging technologies that form the axes of U.S.-China technology competition—AI, autonomous systems, quantum computing, semiconductors, and the bioeconomy—offer opportunities not only for Seoul to solidify its security relationship with Washington, but also to achieve its long-term economic development objectives. Building resilient supply chains, resisting economic espionage, and improving people-to-people exchanges are the first steps toward strengthening the emerging U.S.-ROK technology alliance.