The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
During his first bid for the presidency in 2012, President Moon Jae-in visited a chemical plant in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, 10 days after a fatal industrial accident involving the leak of hydrogen fluoride. He examined devastated farm fields donning gas mask and comforted bereaved families at the hospital. His efforts were a contrast to the unsympathetic government that had been slow in responding to the accident. Moon tweeted how his face and eyes still hurt 10 days after the gas leak and how his wife could not stop coughing when she came near him. The posting raised consciousness about the dangers of the gas.
Hydrogen fluoride was among the three materials Japan began to restrict exports of to Korea from last week in what is believed to be a punitive response to Seoul’s hard-line policies on past issues, including court rulings ordering individual compensation for forced wartime labor.
Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, had to skip a call from President Moon Jae-in in order to fly to Japan to find a solution to the new Japanese regulation, which could disrupt the semiconductor production of the world’s largest chipmaker.
The gas leak from the Gumi plant was a mishap caused by engineers who did not play by the book before and after the lethal accident. In other words, a lax supervisory system was a bigger problem than the dangerous gas itself. Yet exaggerated posts made by a heavyweight politician — then-presidential candidate Moon — worsened fears about living near the toxic gas compound. The scare spread across the country even as experts repeatedly said the chemical gas presented no danger after 10 days because it evaporates easily.
Whether Moon intended it or not, the incident stigmatized hydrogen fluoride as a highly dangerous material, and it led to the shutdown of a plant. Seven months earlier, global chemical company Mexichem pledged 300 billion won ($254.5 million) to build a hydrogen fluoride plant with annual capacity of 130,000 tons in a port area in Yeosu, South Jeolla. But the project was canceled in the face of vehement protests by environmental groups with the backing of the opposition party (now the ruling Democratic Party, or DP) that fielded Moon as its presidential candidate.
The Blue House and the ruling party are advocating the localization of materials and technologies needed for IT and other industrial production as if it can be done overnight through budgetary spending. But the industry remains skeptical as the chances of localizing materials for chipmaking have already been lost. The industry repeatedly pleaded for an easing of chemical regulations, but then-opposition (now ruling) DP warned that the conservative Park Geun-hye administration would be risking the lives of the people and public safety if it tried to soften the law through an administrative order. In 2017, DP Rep. Kang Byung-won went so far as to go public with a secret report on health conditions of workers at wafer fab sites of Samsung Electronics for safety examination despite concerns about leaking confidential technology secrets of the world’s largest chipmaker.
Samsung Electronics has always been a government target and could not dare invest in any areas that could upset the government or lose votes for politicians. As a result, the chipmaker has continued to rely on Japanese supplies to secure key materials needed to produce semiconductors and displays.
However, Kim Ki-sik, a former lawmaker and civic activist who briefly served as head of the Financial Supervisory Service under the Moon administration, dumped the blame on local companies for their woes. He claimed that Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix ignored the need to develop their own technologies in collaboration with other local materials companies by opting to link with the supply chain in Japan. Kim is spreading more disinformation to advocate for his ideology.
It is not just the people around Moon. The president himself appears to be misled and deluded. Instead of presenting a visionary and workable solution, he suddenly rounded up corporate leaders at the Blue House as if to lead them in his anti-Japan campaign.
Things could have been quite different if politicians and officials in the liberal administration had appreciated the valuable company earlier. Whether they admit it or not, the country cannot do without Samsung.