Japan adds to global trade tensions with export curb against S. Korea

On July 1, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that it will restrict export of fluorinated polyimide, resist and hydrogen fluoride, which are used for semiconductor and display production, and their relevant technologies to South Korea. IHS Markit's experts comment:

Rajiv Biswas, APAC chief economist at IHS Markit

The Japanese trade measures taken against South Korea will add to global trade tensions at a time when Asia’s export sector is already facing strong headwinds from the US-China trade negotiations as well as the slowdown in global electronics sector new orders.

The latest IHS Markit Global Electronics PMI Survey for May 2019 showed the sixth consecutive monthly contraction in global electronics sector new orders, which has already hit South Korea’s electronics export sector hard. The increased use of trade sanctions as a policy tool by several large economies has been one of the factors contributing to a significant slowdown in world trade and weakening new export orders during past twelve months.

Len Jelinek, executive director of semiconductor research at IHS Markit

Two chemicals targeted in the tightening of export controls – resist polymers and hydrogen fluoride – are essential to the manufacture of semiconductors. Resists are used as coatings in all of the photolithography steps required to establish individual circuit patterns, while hydrogen fluoride is used as part of the process to delineate the circuits.

A reduction or elimination in the availability of these materials will significantly impede the production of memory and other semiconductor chips, impacting major semiconductor manufacturers including Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.

Japan is the world leader in the manufacturing of resist polymers and any constraints to the material supply chain will have significant negative consequences not only to semiconductor manufacturers but to the chemical companies producing the resist polymers. Because of the volumes of chemicals required within the semiconductor manufacturing process, it is unlikely that the major chip suppliers will be able to find suitable quantities from suppliers outside of Japan.

Tadashi Uno, display research director at IHS Markit

The impacts of this action to display manufacturing will be minimal. Polyimide employed in the manufacture of LCD displays contains less than 10 percent fluorine, and polyimide materials with less than 10 percent fluorine are not listed as restricted currently.

An end-product that could be affected, however, is the Samsung Galaxy Fold smartphone. The display of the Samsung Galaxy Fold – now in pre-order status in the United States – is produced utilizing fluorinated polyimide film from Sumitomo Chemical, which is a Japanese electronic materials firm. South Korea-based Kolon Industries could act as an alternative supplier for the Samsung foldable smartphone display.

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