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South Korea’s Nationwide Effort for AI Semiconductor Industry

circuit board with a chip marked by the flag of South Korea

As global competition in the semiconductor industry has intensified with trade conflicts and semiconductor shortages, major countries worldwide have started to work on their government policy and investment plan to win technological hegemony. South Korea’s semiconductor industry, which makes up almost 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), is heavily concentrated on the memory semiconductor sector.5 It dominates the global memory semiconductor market with a 56.9% share but has little influence on the other sectors of the industry, including logic, analog, and optical discrete, where it has less than a 3% market share. To grow the nation’s biggest industry further, South Korea has put a priority on non-memory sectors. The emerging AI chip market is an especially great opportunity for them, as demand is expected to increase exponentially with the paradigm shift in computing. South Korea aims to become a comprehensive semiconductor powerhouse from this colossal opportunity. In this article, we report recent nationwide efforts taking place in South Korea to challenge the emerging AI semiconductor industry. We organize these efforts in four sections (government, major companies, fabless startups, and academia), while Figure 1 overviews the overall efforts.

Figure 1. Overview of South Korea’s nationwide efforts for the AI semiconductor industry.

The South Korean government’s K-semiconductor strategy is to build the world’s best semiconductor supply chain by 2030 with a $450B investment plan.2 Learning from the semiconductor crisis, the goal is to stabilize and internalize the semi-conductor supply chain by gathering fabless, foundry, and packaging companies in a clustered area called the K-Semiconductor Belt for seamless silicon product manufacturing. The government has also announced nearly $260B-worth of tax deductions for semiconductor facilities and R&D funding,3 in addition to making the approval process for the expansion of semiconductor manufacturing facilities faster and more flexible, and subsidizing up to 50% of the construction cost of the facility’s power infrastructure. The government pledged to invest in strategically important semiconductor sectors, including power, automotive, and AI semiconductors, as part of its long-term R&D road-map. With the above financial and regulatory support, the government set a goal of doubling semiconductor production to $245B, with an export target of $200B, by 2030.

The government also is trying to build a collaborative ecosystem that helps once-segmented academia and industry work together to make competitive products for the global market. It has set up national programs to facilitate collaboration between university labs and startup companies by funding technology transfer and commercialization. The government also is subsidizing startup fabless companies to use the latest EDA tools and semiconductor process technologies.

Lastly, the government is heavily focused on fostering high-quality manpower for the semiconductor industry. Based on a survey that found at least 270,000 persons will be needed to sustain the industry in 10 years, the government aims to foster 150,000 more semiconductor experts at all levels (junior colleges, undergraduate schools, and graduate schools) by 2030. It also plans to establish new research centers and university departments to develop competent researchers and experts in the semiconductor field.

Major countries, including the U.S. and China, also have announced support policies for their semiconductor industries. The U.S. passed the CHIPS Act in 2022, which promises 25% tax credits and a $52B investment to enhance domestic semiconductor manufacturing. China’s “Made in China 2025” initiative announced in 2015 has aimed to lift the country’s chip production from less than 10% of demand to 70% in 2025, fostering government-backed fabless and manufacturing companies. In contrast, South Korea’s plan is more concentrated and streamlined, emphasizing human resource development overall.

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Major Companies

South Korea’s chip companies working in AI semiconductors can be divided into two groups: major companies leading the world’s memory semiconductor market, and newly founded fabless startup companies developing AI accelerators. Figure 2 summarizes their major products and activities related to AI semiconductor development.

Figure 2. Summary of South Korea’s AI semiconductor products.

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, the world’s leading memory semiconductor companies, have launched investment and employment plans for their AI semiconductor and foundry businesses. Samsung Electronics is trying to develop next-generation AI semiconductor products by leveraging its strengths in mobile chipset design and memory manufacturing. Samsung develops its own neural processing units (NPUs) and integrates them into multiple processing platforms, including the Exynos mobile processor and the Exynos auto processor series.

Once secretly focusing solely on their own product development, major companies are starting to open up relations with the academia and research communities to learn the latest AI technologies and engage with well-educated researchers.

Another notable product development direction is putting AI computation logic into memories. Both Samsung and SK Hynix are developing intelligent memory chips using in/near-memory processing technology, which can mitigate the system bandwidth bottleneck of conventional von Neumann architecture. Samsung released the HBM-PIM, which incorporates the AI processing function into the HBM2 memory stack, and the AXDIMM, which adds an AI engine inside the buffer chip of the traditional DIMM form factor. The company also developed SmartSSD, which integrates Samsung’s solid-state drive (SSD) and Xilinx’s field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip on a single card, with a fast direct data path between them for near-data processing. SK Hynix recently released the GDDR6-Accelerator-in-Memory (AiM) chip that integrates processing units in the latest GDDR6, which can provide a total of 1TFLOPS processing throughput.

In addition, once secretly focusing solely on their own product development, major companies are starting to open relations with the academia and research communities to learn the latest AI technologies and engage with well-educated researchers. For example, the Samsung Science & Technology Foundation announced grants totaling $40.12 million to 27 high-profile research projects, bolstering collaboration with academia.4 SK Hynix also launched a knowledge-sharing platform named “Semiconductor Academy,” which provides online/offline lectures to university students, job seekers, and employees, covering a diverse range of topics including semiconductor basics, devices, and design. Moreover, both Samsung and SK Hynix continuously provide multi-project wafer (MPW) services for startup fabless, design houses, and academia. This allows greater foundry selection for domestic fabless companies and enables competitive prototyping of their AI chips with the latest process technologies. Samsung has announced a massive hiring plan to employ more than 80,000 people in new jobs, as the demand for AI semiconductor products continues to increase.

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Fabless Startups

Ever since it launched the Ministry of SMEs and Startups in 2017, South Korea has been investing heavily in building a startup ecosystem to pivot from a conglomerate-based to a startup-based industry. With successful supporting programs such as K-Unicorn and Tech Incubator Program for Startups (TIPS), South Korea has become a good place for startups, surpassing $6.4B in venture capital funding in 2021.6 Benefiting from this environmental change, more than 10 fabless startups targeting AI hardware accelerators have been founded in South Korea in the past five years. Unlike the major companies that develop next-generation AI products based on existing products, the fabless startups develop AI accelerators from scratch for specific application domains. They can be segmented into two groups: the companies targeting datacenter applications (FuriosaAI, Rebellions, Sapeon, and HyperAccel) and companies targeting edge applications (OpenEdge, Mobilint, DeepX, and Telechips).

FuriosaAI is one of the first fabless startups to develop AI accelerators for high-performance vision tasks such as image classification and object detection in datacenters. The company released the Warboy prototype in 2021, proving it could achieve 1.5x higher performance and 4x higher performance per price than a comparable GPU, NVIDIA’s T4, for target applications.

Rebellions is a fabless startup company developing an AI accelerator for high-frequency trading (HFT). That company released its first accelerator card for intelligent HFT, called Light-Trader, in 2022; it achieves 64 trillion operations per second (TOPS)/16 trillion floating-point calculations per second (TFLOPS) peak performance, with workload scheduling and dynamic voltage-frequency scaling.

Sapeon also is developing its own AI inference chip for low-latency AI inference on image data. In 2022, Sapeon released the X220, the first commercialized AI semiconductor chip, showing 2.3x and 2.2x higher performance and power efficiency than NVIDIA’s A2, respectively, in the MLPerf data-center inference benchmark.

HyperAccel is the newest of the startups, founded this year to target the acceleration of hyperscale AI models such as OpenAI’s GPT. HyperAccel uses multiple AI accelerators with memory-bandwidth maximization for emerging generative AI workloads.

OpenEdges Technology is developing low-power, high-performance NPU IP and related high-speed memory systems. The company’s strength in memory controllers and subsystems makes them promising for NPU development. Last year, OpenEdges released Enlight, an AI accelerator IP with an optimized network model compiler that minimizes DRAM traffic.

Established in 2019, Mobilint is an AI semiconductor startup developing high-performance AI inference NPUs for edge devices and cars. Its NPU implementation on FPGA took first place in the global benchmark MLPerf for two consecutive years (2020 and 2021). Mobilint last year unveiled its Aries chip, which delivers up to 80 TOPS of AI performance at maximum capacity.

DeepX is a startup company developing power-efficient NPU chips for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The company’s DX-L1 system on a chip targets relatively simple IoT applications, such as smart camera sensors and security cameras, while the DX-H1 targets huge IoT applications, such as smart factories and smart buildings.

Lastly, Telechips is a medium-sized company developing intelligent automotive solutions for autonomous vehicles. The company has released various infotainment application processors for audio, digital cluster, and cockpit systems with low power requirements and a high level of security.

South Korean fabless startups aim beyond the domestic market to enter overseas markets with their AI accelerators, leveraging the country’s competitive IT infrastructure as a testbed. They are targeting developed markets such as the U.S. and Europe, but also are looking at lucrative emerging markets, such as India and Southeast Asia.

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Universities and Education

Korean universities are making great efforts to expand their research on AI chips and on next-generation semiconductor technology. Since Sungkyunkwan University established its contracted semiconductor department with the help of Samsung Electronics in 2006, Yonsei and Korea universities have implemented similarly contracted departments with Samsung in 2019, and with SK Hynix in 2021. In such industry-contracted semiconductor departments, the curriculum is focused on semiconductor engineering, including its basic devices, design, and system integration, to educate students to be ready for work in the domain at graduation. They also get hands-on project experience and mentorship opportunities from industry experts. After graduation, the students are guaranteed ****mployment by the contracting company, allowing many talented experts to work in the domestic industry. As summarized in Table 1, seven major universities in South Korea have industry-contracted semiconductor departments, and more than 350 students will be raised to the level of AI semiconductor experts soon.

Table 1. Industry-contracted semiconductor departments in universities.

The influence of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is especially critical to South Korea’s semiconductor industry, as described in the biographic article of Choong-Ki Kim.1 KAIST founded its semiconductor system engineering department, including 50 prominent professors, in 2022, with three specialized tracks—semiconductor device/process, chip design and VLSI, and system software and algorithms—to lead and transform the industry towards AI/system-focus, rather than remaining memory-focused. The school also has attracted governmental research centers in the AI semiconductor domain, such as the AI Semiconductor System (AISS) research center and the Processing-in-Memory (PIM) research center. Involving more than 10 research labs and 100 graduate students, each research center conducts innovative research over a long-term period, nurturing human resources with technical competence.

South Korean universities show top-notch research capabilities in the areas of AI semiconductors. As illustrated in Figure 3, they result in strong research outcomes in AI accelerator architecture and design, server-scale AI systems, processing-in-memory chips, and near-data processing. They publish many papers in top-tier conferences and journals, such as the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, the International Symposium on Computer Architecture, the IEEE/ACM International Symposium on Microarchitecture, and the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits.

Figure 3. Research outcomes of South Korean universities and IDEC’s educational support.

The IC Design Education Center (IDEC) is the unsung hero of South Korea’s semiconductor industry, helping universities pursue research in the chip design field, which is expensive due to manufacturing costs. Since 1995, IDEC has supported MPW programs and access to essential electronic design automation (EDA) tools at low cost, as well as providing practical education to universities. It manages sensitive non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and process design kit (PDK) distribution between universities and foundry companies such as Samsung, TSMC, and Magnachip. More specifically, they serve more than 10 MPW shuttles and 50 EDA tools from over 15 vendors to universities every year. In addition, IDEC annually holds a chip design contest to exhibit silicon chips produced through its MPW programs to the community and industry, sharing the latest research outcomes for enhancing domestic chip design competitiveness. It has been operating more than 50 online/offline lectures on chip design every year, and recently started an accelerated degree program for industry practitioners.

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South Korea is striving to become a comprehensive semiconductor powerhouse by preempting the emerging AI semiconductor market via nationwide efforts among government, industry, and academia. Table 2 summarizes technical challenges for their two target products: AI accelerators and PIM semiconductors. For AI accelerators, efficient software and hardware execution through full-stack development and high fabrication costs are the challenges. For PIM semiconductors that integrate logic inside the memory, low-level circuit innovation and system software to enable their adaptation in the system are important, while their fabrication is primarily possible only by memory vendors.

Table 2. Technical challenges.

To this end, the government has a bold investment plan with both financial and regulatory support, promoting the development of a collaborative ecosystem by 2030 in which fabless, foundry, and packaging companies, as well as universities, will work together to enable seamless silicon product manufacturing. The government also plans to aggressively foster AI semiconductor experts by initiating school departments and research centers. Memory chip giants such as Samsung and SK Hynix are diversifying their product lines with their own NPU IPs and in/near-memory processing technology. More than 10 fabless startup companies have been founded recently and are actively developing AI acceleration solutions for various application domains.


    1. Kim, D-W. The Godfather of South Korea's chip industry: Kim Choong-Ki's "Engineer's Mind" helped make the country a semiconductor superpower. IEEE Spectrum 59, 10 (2022), 32–38.

    2. Kim, J. South Korea plans to invest $450bn to become chip 'powerhouse'. NIKKEI Asia,

    3. Lee, J-Y. S. Korea targets W340tr investment for chip supremacy. The Korea Herald;

    4. Lee, S. Samsung announces research projects for $40.12 million sponsorship. Pulse News;

    5. Rousselot, S. The ambiguous position of the South Korean semiconductor industry in the US-China tech war. Asia Power Watch;

    6. Yoon, S. This is how South Korea can become a global innovation hub. The World Economic Forum;

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