pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

ROK-US Science & Tech Partnership on Critical Technologies Dialogue


– 11/10/2022


Honolulu, Hawaii


Key Findings

Pacific Forum, in cooperation with the Republic of Korea (ROK) Consulate-General of Honolulu and George Mason Korea’s Center for Security Policy Studies, hosted a closed-door, in-person expert workshop on “Strengthening ROK-US Science and Tech Collaboration in Critical Technologies Dialogue.” Led by Mark Bryan Manantan, Director of Cybersecurity and Critical Technologies, the two-day workshop brought 20 experts and practitioners from the US and South Korea to conduct a clear-eyed assessment on the feasibility of tech cooperation given diverging views to achieve policy alignment and synergy on critical technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, 5G/6G and cybersecurity.

Particular attention was given to the opportunities and challenges of friend-shoring and onshoring to enhance the flow of investments, talent, and technology between the two allies amid pressures of supply chain resilience and US-China strategic competition. Key findings from this workshop will contribute to a forthcoming joint publication between the Pacific Forum and George Mason Korea’s Center for Security Policy Studies.


Participants noted that there are significant obstacles to cooperation in the semiconductor industry. One speaker argued that semiconductor cooperation between the US and ROK is “not feasible,” due in part to “blatant protectionism and unilateralism” under the CHIPS and Science Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Export controls. The latter, the speaker argued, amounted to “strongarming allies in the name of friend-shoring.” Over the past three decades, Taiwan and South Korea saw a dramatic boost on their semiconductor industry due to persistent and long-term investments. In contrast, US’ shares in the semiconductor industry continues to slip due to lagging capacity and shortfall of capital investments. Speakers noted that the semiconductor industries of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan would face immense challenges if they were to follow US demands to leave China. As an important source of raw materials and market of semiconductors, exit of the Chinese market for Semiconductor companies that include SK Hynix among others will not be feasible.

On export controls, other participants agreed that there was an “expectation” that other equipment manufacturing countries based in Japan and the Netherlands would follow the American lead. There is high plausibility that the CHIPS Act also aims to attract global talents, particularly, engineers to relocate in the US as part of its friend shoring campaign. However, amid the promises that the recent CHIPS Act offers, China’s favorable industrial policy remains competitive among semiconductor manufacturers looking for greater incentives such as cross-border financial services and unfettered access to customers globally.

Other participants have also emphasized that the differing views of the US and South Korea on semiconductors may impact cooperation. The former views the prized chips as a national security, while the latter consider it more as an economic issue. For the US, the likelihood of Taiwan invasion will not only lead to shortage or even fragmentation of the global supply chain but will have far greater consequential impact to developing critical technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and smart cities. In such a case, South Korea will be heavily affected given its intricate dependencies on semiconductors that powers up its economy. Thus, such varying attitude puts into question the use of “tech alliance” as the appropriate lens in framing current US-South Korea tech cooperation.

To proceed, the US must recognize the diverging interests among South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan and their constituent semiconductor industry partners. An emphasis on creating “synergy effects” throughout the semiconductor production supply chain is perhaps the best way forward to harness the comparative advantage of each member of the proposed Chips 4 alliance.

Cybersecurity and 5G/6G

Speakers noted that while Fifth Generation mobile technology (5G) will enable advancement of the commercial sector and the military—the internet of things and autonomous vehicles, for example—the network’s “cloud” of small cell towers creates a “distributed threat structure,” that is potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. Therefore, 5G’s software-like architecture necessitates new risk-management frameworks.

Currently, the Chinese Information Communications and Technology (ICT) giant Huawei controls 30% of the 5G market’s networking equipment. The US government has expressed its concerns over the Chinese ICT giant’s strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and its adherence to the National Intelligence Law of 2017 that requires all Chinese companies’ cooperation with the party. This makes Huawei a potential instrument to geopolitical ends like cyber espionage, surveillance, and denial-of-service.

While the speakers noted previous US efforts to counter Huawei’s dominance, through placing Huawei on the “entity list,” and encouraging other nations to ban Huawei equipment from 5G networks, other participants questioned the efficacy of these practices. One participant noted, for example, that Southeast Asian nations are aware of the security risks that Huawei presents but, the absence of a cost-effective alternative and the high demand for 5G equipment, made them choose Huawei anyway. The US and its allies, including South Korea through Samsung, seeks to promote Open Radio Access Network (RAN)—a protocol which would allow mobile network operators to use different equipment from multiple vendors— to counter Huawei’s increasing dominance. However, the proposal to further develop Open RAN was also questioned, noting the decline or lack of commitment from its original proponents like Nokia and Ericsson.

Zooming in on cybersecurity, participants noted the tradeoff between user experience and security, emphasizing that while the private sector prioritizes user experience in pursuit of profit maximization, government advocates for security. Participants also noted the alarming proportion of cybercrime incidents against small and medium-sized businesses, who unfortunately, underreport such attacks for fear of reputational damage. Moving forward, more should be done to provide relief to victims of cyberattacks and continue to empower law enforcement agencies in the US and South Korea to understand the “business model” of “North Korea, Inc.,” and the state’s affiliated cybercrime organizations.

Although in the past, North Korean cyber threat actors were known to just recycle their tactics, techniques, and procedures, they are currently adopting and increasingly developing in-house sophisticated malware. Noting the profit motivations of the private sector, one participant noted that the US and ROK should incentivize more companies to integrate the use of cyber defense best practices into credit ratings to achieve greater security compliance. Also, at the policy and working level, the US and ROK law enforcement should sustain their collaboration through the Ransomware Working Group to better understand the evolving cyber threats posed by North Korea cyber actors.


Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the most promising areas for US-ROK tech partnership as both countries have expressed interest in building trustworthy and/or ethical AI. To achieve this, the US and ROK should first build a unified framework that defines “Trustworthy or Ethical AI.”

One speaker noted that the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy has recently published an “AI Bill of Rights,” outlining the necessity of data privacy, protections against algorithmic discrimination, and independent human evaluation of systems. Although AI is an enabling technology, its rapid adoption will soon force humanity to rethink the future of work. As AI-enabled technologies like robots are widely integrated in the society, humans will increasingly feel idle, challenging the notion of what constitutes a “fulfilling” life. Another related issue raised was how could AI be used to help humans or otherwise make them better.

One participant noted that China may have an advantage in AI given the arbitrariness of its data privacy law that allows the Chinese government to source data—whether through legal or illegal means—from its public or private sector, thus, possibly creating more robust algorithms. In response, the US and South Korea should devise novel ways to collaborate with their respective private sector to gain similar access to data without impinging on human privacy and security.

The United States and South Korea apply robotics, in general, in different ways. While the US focuses on industrial and military applications, ROK focuses on humanoid robots to provide services (e.g., restaurant server) and entertainment. In part, this stems from cultural differences where in Asia, there is a greater trust in robots, while Americans tend to be more suspicious. Issues may also arise from both over- and under-trust of robots, as this can create expectations that a robot can perform a task that it cannot, or cannot perform a task that it can, respectively. For emerging tech areas like robotics, the US and South Korea should continue to explore its opportunities and challenges through sustaining current joint research and development collaboration. In the short-to-medium term, the two countries must be able to map out common understanding to define ethical and trustworthy AI—the foundational technology of robots—to ensure that the technical and policy parameters are laid out, permitting the exchange of data in a secured and interoperable fashion.

This document was prepared by Mark Bryan Manantan. For more information, please contact Mark Bryan Manantan ([email protected]), Director of Cybersecurity and Critical Technologies at Pacific Forum. These preliminary findings provide a general summary of the discussion. This is not a consensus document. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants. The speakers have approved this summation of their presentation.