5-people-indicted-for-leaking-semiconductor technology-to-china
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Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Jae-yong (front) inspect a production line at the Cheonan plant of SEMES, a semiconductor equipment subsidiary of Samsung Electronics, in June 2020.

The prosecution has indicted five people for leaking the world’s first supercritical semiconductor cleaning equipment core technology developed by SEMES, a key subsidiary of Samsung Electronics, to China.

The Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office announced on Jan. 16 that it has indicted five people, including former SEMES researchers and a technology leak broker, for violating the Industrial Technology Protection Act and the Unfair Competition Prevention Act (a leak of trade secrets). Among the five, four were arrested and one was incited without detention.

Established in 1993 by Samsung Electronics, SEMES is a key subsidiary that produces semiconductor and display manufacturing equipment. 

The company commercialized the world’s first supercritical semiconductor cleaning equipment, which can lower the defect rate of ultra-micro semiconductors by minimizing damage to substrates. After cleaning semiconductor wafers with a chemical solution and others, the equipment dries the wafers using supercritical carbon dioxide. The Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy has designated the equipment as a core national technology.

The five indicted people included a former SEMES employee who quit the company in 2016 and started his own company in 2019. He is suspected of handing over key drawings of supercritical semiconductor cleaning equipment, which he acquired through the CEO of SEMES partner company, to a technology leak broker in June 2021. The broker leaked the drawings to China. 

Investigators have found that the former SEMES employee and others earned a profit of 119.3 billion won by exporting 20 units of cleaning equipment from December 2019 to July 2022.

The former SEMES employee is also accused of leaking information on the single wafer phosphate cleaning equipment, which was developed by SEMES in 2021 for the second time in the world, to employees of his own company by conspiring with a former SEMES researcher, who was also arrested and indicted. Single wafer phosphate cleaning equipment cleans semiconductors one by one with phosphoric acid solution. It is used to remove silica remaining on wafer surfaces. Only two companies have succeeded in developing this equipment in the world — SEMES of Korea and Shibaura of Japan.

In May last year, the former SEMES employee was arrested and indicted once for leaking information on SEMES’s wet semiconductor cleaning equipment, to China. He was released on bail in November last year due to the expiration of his arrest period and was tried without detention, but was imprisoned again as the prosecution uncovered the additional technology leak case.

“From 2009 to 2021, SEMES invested about 35 billion won in research and development of the supercritical technology,” a prosecution official said. “This crime caused a direct loss of over 35 billion won. It is feared that SEMES will suffer a loss of over 40 billion won annually if orders to SEMES drop by only 10 percent due to a decline in the company’s technological power.”

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