Tech needs a strategy

2022. 10. 5. 19:41
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Korea must devise a national strategy to obtain an uncontested technological edge.

Yeom Jae-ho

The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University. The U.S.-China competition over technology deepens. America allowed China’s dramatic rise as the world’s factory, but would never surrender its supremacy over technology to China, as seen in the increasing arrests of Chinese-American professors at U.S. universities for spying on cutting-edge U.S. technology and the disappearance of friendly attitudes towards Chinese students studying in America. The U.S. also started to check its allies to block their potential technology transfers to China.

Such an aggressive U.S. strategy to take the upper hand in technology is in line with the 1985 Plaza Accord that dealt a critical blow to “Japan as No. 1.” Japan’s situation at the time and China’s situation now are drastically different, but nevertheless the aggressiveness testifies to a U.S. determination to keep China in check. After the U.S.’s appreciation of the Japanese yen by two times at a single stroke through the accord, Japan suffered an economic slump for three decades. On Korea’s part, it was offered a chance to take a quantum leap for economic growth.

However, the heated Sino-U.S. race for technology domination poses a serious crisis — not an opportunity — to Korea, as the country is squeezed between the two giants. Korea has been hard hit by the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the U.S. and China is trying to keep Korea in check after it joined the Chip 4 alliance. Given the harsh economic retaliation China imposed on Korea over its deployment of the U.S. Thaad missile defense system, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration must draw up a national strategy to cope with the deepening U.S.-China competition over technology.

A small power squeezed between big powers should be careful not to take one side. Also dangerous is the tendency of a left-wing government siding with China and a right-wing government siding with the U.S., as one-sided diplomacy on security and ideology can easily provoke an attack from the other. Korea can learn from Venice, which was squeezed between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Just as the city state prospered after adopting the strategy of seeking commercial interests without political affiliation, Korea must take a wise diplomatic approach beyond national identity.

Korea must devise a national strategy to obtain an uncontested technological edge. It must learn lessons from the recent crisis over a critical shortage of urea water solution due to China’s export ban and the dearth of materials and parts needed for semiconductor production after Japan’s export restrictions. Just as the National Security Service exists for security, the government must establish a national organization overseeing all industrial information at home and abroad from the perspective of “total security.” The Yoon administration must create an integral system to get the needed information on rare earth materials, high-tech components and equipment, energy and food resources. At the same time, the Yoon administration must create a department managing Big Data and providing related information services to build a national-level digital platform in the era of AI.

Another question involves drawing up policies to attract human resources to help tackle future challenges. First of all, the government must send our talent to America while it tries to keep Chinese students and scholars at bay for fear of technology leaks. It has not been easy for Korean students to get admitted to graduate schools of prestigious U.S. universities due to a massive inflow of Chinese students. The time has come for the government to help Korean students study in high-tech fields in the U.S. and conduct post-doctorate courses at renowned research institutes in Silicon Valley or Boston to help create a competitive research network.

Singapore has emerged as a global tech hub through aggressive effort to attract foreign talent for sophisticated technology despite a lack of manpower. The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University became a destination for top-caliber scholars thanks to the government’s support. For instance, Biopolis — established by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) under the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore — had executed 50 biomedical research projects and 45 of them were run by foreigners for the first ten years since its opening in 2003. Biopolis attracted a top-caliber research facility from Johnson & Johnson. Regrettably, Korea’s top companies cannot establish their research facilities around college campuses due to government regulations.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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