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New Korean envoy eyes closer bilateral cooperation on semiconductor industry

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Lee Eun-ho, the Republic of Korea's representative to Taiwan, speaks in a recent interview with CNA. CNA photo March 27, 2023
CNA photo March 27, 2023
CNA photo March 27, 2023

Taipei, March 27 (CNA) The Republic of Korea's new representative to Taiwan Lee Eun-ho is hoping to facilitate closer bilateral semiconductor cooperation to improve global supply chain resilience, and he believes his background in engineering and technology could help in that effort.

In his first interview with local media outlets since arriving in late February, Lee told CNA that unlike most of his predecessors who majored in diplomacy or public affairs, he received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States.

After returning to South Korea, he continued to study micro-mechanical design and unmanned aerial vehicles, and because micro-mechanical design is closely related to the semiconductor sector, Lee said he felt he has some understanding of the field.

That makes his appointment timely, given the growing interest in the field after an unprecedented IC supply shortage that led to widespread concern over semiconductor supply chain stability, said Lee, who took over as the representative of the Korean Mission in Taipei on Feb. 20.

The Korean Mission in Taipei represents Seoul's interests in Taipei in the absence of official diplomatic ties.

Though some may see Taiwan and South Korea as rivals in the semiconductor sphere, Lee said the two sides would be better described as close partners with complementary strengths.

Among Korea's strengths are its companies' 70-percent global market share in high-performance DRAMs and 50-percent share of the global NAND flash market, he said.

The semiconductor sector is also the biggest industry in South Korea, accounting for a quarter of its total investment and a fifth of its exports, he said.

Taiwan also has its strengths, with bilateral trade between the two economies totaling more than US$54 billion in 2022. Much of that was related to semiconductor products, Lee said, and the two sides continue to learn from each other to advance their technologies.

As Korea's representative to Taiwan and someone who has knowledge of the field, Lee said he will do his best to offer support so that companies from the two sides can cooperate more closely and develop their respective interests in the global market.

Asked about the United States-led "Chip 4" alliance, meanwhile, Lee said he believed the grouping should also be working more closely to stabilize supply chain security and semiconductor resilience.

The Chip 4 alliance is a grouping of the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to build cooperation in the design and production of sophisticated semiconductors.

Lee's unconventional background was noted in Taiwan when the appointment was made.

A diplomatic source previously told CNA that the appointment was significant because it was the first time Seoul had named an envoy to Taipei from its Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE).

Until now, envoys to Taipei had come from South Korea's foreign ministry since 1992, when official ties between the two countries were severed as Seoul switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Lee was also the first top Korean envoy to Taiwan named by President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May 2022.

Born in 1961, Lee started his public service as the director of MOTIE's international standards division and then of the MOTIE's e-business policy division, before being posted overseas at the Korean embassy in Vietnam and then in the United Arab Emirates.

He most recently served as president of the Korean Security Agency of Trade and Industry (KOSTI), a government-funded institution to help Korean corporations comply with export controls and international trade standards, a position he had held since May 2020.

During his interview with CNA, Lee said that aside from semiconductor cooperation, Korea and Taiwan also have strong partnerships on two-way travel and people-to-people exchanges.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.5 million visitors traveled between the two sides in 2019, with each side being the other's third largest source of international tourists, according to the envoy.

Now, with countries around the world lifting previously imposed COVID travel restrictions, two-way travel is back on the rise, he said, with visits between the two sides rising to 130,000 in 2022 after reaching only 7,000 in 2021.

Korea and Taiwan are close neighbors separated only by two-hour flights, he said, noting that he recently found himself surrounded by Korean-speaking tourists after stepping into the first coffee shop he saw on exiting the metro station at Taipei's tourism hotspot Ximending over the weekend.

Taiwanese people are also big fans of Korean TV dramas, he said, another sign of how Koreans and Taiwanese love each other's culture.

Lee replaced Chung Byung-won, who was South Korea's representative to Taiwan since December 2021 and who has moved on to become Korea's ambassador to Sweden.

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