ANALYSIS: South Korean Tech Workers in China Grapple With Layoff Wave

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China’s display industry saw spiraling growth after alleged tech thefts and poaching of Korean personnel

News Analysis

South Korea, once the reigning champion in the global display manufacturing industry, has reportedly lost its top spot due to a technology theft blitz spearheaded by China’s communist regime. A wave of abrupt dismissals, often without the mandated severance pay, has recently hit South Korean experts working in China.

This incident raises serious concerns, with some experts cautioning that South Korea faces not just unfair competition but also an adversary in the form of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

South Korea’s highly developed tech sectors, particularly semiconductors and display panels, have reportedly become the prime targets of the CCP’s aggressive tech acquisition strategy. Tactics allegedly deployed by Beijing range from enticing key employees with lucrative offers to illicit bribery. Consequently, South Korea’s 17-year reign as the world’s leading display manufacturer—a position of dominance in the LCD and OLED markets—was usurped by China in 2021.

The latest statistics from the Korea Display Industry Association highlight this shift. In 2021, China dominated the global display market with a 42.5 percent share, surpassing South Korea’s 36.9 percent.

In response to China’s dominance in the LCD market, South Korea has conceded its less profitable LCD ventures, redirecting focus to organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Last year, Korea held a considerable 81.3 percent share in the global OLED market compared to China’s 17.9 percent.

LG OLED Flex televisions are on display during an LG press event at CES 2023 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 4, 2023. CES, the world’s largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs from Jan. 5-8 and features about 3,100 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to over 100,000 attendees. (David Becker/Getty Images)

However, China’s progress in the OLED market is rapidly gaining momentum. In four years, from 2017 to 2021, China’s market share in the small- and medium-sized OLED market skyrocketed from 1.5 percent to 20 percent.

‘Expulsion Orders’

Recent reports in the Korean media, notably JoongAng Ilbo, reveal allegations that major Chinese display manufacturers—including BOE, China Star Optoelectronics Technology Co. (CSOT), and HKC Corp.—have been terminating Korean employees since 2022. The layoffs, primarily employees involved in LCD substrate design and production at Samsung Display and LG Display, are reported to number in the hundreds.

These reports also claim that Chinese companies have issued “expulsion orders” to Korean employees without their promised severance packages. There are numerous instances of Korean employees being dismissed within a year, despite having committed to a three-year contract.

It’s worth noting that in the past, Chinese enterprises have allegedly enticed Korean tech talents by offering lucrative incentives, including salaries triple what they received at home, three-year contracts, and additional perks like vehicles, housing, and children’s tuition fees, only to later dismiss these workers abruptly.

Following the wave of layoffs among South Korean LCD technicians, the CCP has seemingly shifted its focus toward Korean OLED specialists. Despite South Korea’s current dominance in the global OLED market, concerns are surfacing within the industry about potential infiltration by the CCP, mirroring its LCD takeover.

Tech Theft

The CCP’s attempts to attract Korean talent appear more urgent as Washington tightens regulations in the display and semiconductor sectors. Hankook Ilbo reported a rise in instances where Chinese companies establish research and development centers in South Korea. These centers allegedly facilitate tech theft by hiring local researchers or acquiring stakes in South Korean companies to manipulate their operations. This method bypasses potential investigations by the Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) as it differs from directly poaching Korean researchers to join Chinese companies.

Between 2017 and 2022, over 93 instances of overseas industrial patent leaks occurred within Korean businesses, according to the NIS. The degree of technology leakage in the display sector is second only to semiconductors, with more than 60 percent of these leaks relating to China. The total loss from these leaks is estimated to be over 25 trillion won (about $19.6 billion).

Li Yuanhua, a China expert and former associate professor of history education at China’s Capital Normal University, expressed concern over Seoul’s relationship with Beijing in a July 15 interview with The Epoch Times.

Mr. Li stated that South Korea may not fully comprehend the nature of the CCP, emphasizing that it’s not a benign technological competitor but a rogue regime that will exploit any opportunity to steal intellectual property. Once the CCP acquires the desired technology, the technicians are promptly dismissed, and this is a lesson South Korea needs to learn, he said.

Mr. Li urged South Korea to implement stricter laws to penalize those who compromise the country’s core interests to foreign nations, particularly communist China.

Beijing’s use of North Korea as a strategic asset in its dealings with the West poses a significant threat to South Korea’s national security, he added. Mr. Li believes that South Korea should recognize the true nature of the CCP and take strong defensive measures from a national security perspective.


In mid-June, South Korea’s Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit against a former Samsung Electronics executive, surnamed Choi, for allegedly stealing design data from a Samsung Electronics semiconductor factory and attempting to build a replica factory in China.

A woman walks past a new flagship store of Samsung Electronics in the Gangnam district in Seoul on June 28, 2023. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr. Choi, 65, a South Korean tech industry veteran, reportedly received approximately $360 million from authorities in China’s Chengdu city to establish a semiconductor company there, recruiting over 200 key personnel from Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.

Mr. Choi was once lauded with titles for his innovation, hands-on approach, and round-the-clock dedication. Prosecutors described the defendant in a statement as an “undisputed top domestic expert in semiconductor manufacturing.” However, this time, the government that honored him as a national tech hero accuses him of industrial espionage.

“The data, which Samsung Electronics obtained through more than 30 years of research and development, is worth 300 billion to trillions of won (at least $200 million to billions). It is not only a company’s trade secret but also a national core technology,” prosecutors said.

Furthermore, amid escalating tension between South Korea and China, Samsung has drawn attention by pulling out of the Shanghai Mobile World Congress for the first time in six years and initiating its maiden patent lawsuit against Chinese company BOE, China’s premier display company.

Samsung Display took a decisive step on June 26, instigating a patent infringement lawsuit against BOE Technology Group Co., Ltd. The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District Court of Texas, asserts that BOE had unlawfully appropriated four of Samsung’s patented OLED display technologies used in the iPhone 12.

This legal action marks Samsung’s first patent lawsuit against BOE after it repeated warnings against unauthorized appropriation of Samsung’s technology.

Kane Zhang contributed to this report.


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