The Korea Herald


Korean firms fight talent exodus as chip tech war intensifies

Seoul court rules in favor of Samsung’s petition to ban employee from moving to Micron

By Jo He-rim

Published : June 26, 2023 - 16:07

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Samsung Electronics 8GB Double-Data-Rate 4 memory modules. (Bloomberg) Samsung Electronics 8GB Double-Data-Rate 4 memory modules. (Bloomberg)

A former Samsung employee was banned from moving to US rival Micron Technology after the Korean tech giant took the issue to court amid growing concerns over illicit tech transfer.

Seoul Central District Court on Sunday accepted Samsung Electronics’ petition for an injunction to ban a key employee from moving to US chip rival Micron Technology just three months after quitting the Korean chipmaker.

"DRAM technology is designated as national strategic technology and protection of the technology is of public interest even if it may partly limit one's freedom of occupation," the court said.

The employee is an expert in DRAM memory chip design, having served key roles as senior researcher at Samsung for about 24 years since he entered the Korean tech giant in 1998. The employee also served as a project manager handling the company's key chip technologies since June 2018.

It was in March last year that the employee expressed the intention to resign. Leaving the Korean chipmaker, the employee signed a confidentiality agreement promising not to establish a company in the same industrial field, and not to work for rival entities for two years.

But the employee joined Micron Technology, a US-based memory chipmaker ranking No. 3 in the world after Samsung and SK hynix, three months after quitting.

Samsung filed the injunction to claim that the employee violated the confidentiality contract.

The employee reportedly argued that agreement should be made invalid, since he was not provided with appropriate treatment for the two-year prohibition period, and that the contract itself was excessively restrictive.

The court, however, ruled that the bilateral contract was valid, and that the employee should not be allowed to work in chip related industry until April next year.

"It is difficult to accept the claim that the two-year prohibition period is too long. (The employee) was not only involved in the DRAM designing process, but also took part in establishing the long-term development plan for Samsung," the court said.

Amid intensifying competition for technological advancement, global chipmakers, such as Samsung are striving to protect their advanced technologies from leaking.

Earlier this month, a former executive of Samsung has been taken into custody for leaking the tech giant's confidential business information to build a copycat semiconductor manufacturing plant in China.

A local prosecutor's office here said on June 12 that the 65-year-old former executive had attempted to build a chip plant in China using key information stolen from Samsung. The accused worked in Samsung's chip division for 18 years, and also served as a vice president at SK hynix, the world's second largest memory chipmaker.

In May, Samsung fired another chip engineer and requested a criminal investigation into them. The accused was found to have sent the company's critical information to a personal email account, and also other accounts.

Last April, another Samsung engineer, who was reportedly preparing to move to a foreign company, was found to have taken hundreds of photos of the company's technology secrets designated as national strategic technologies while working from home.

In the first trial, the engineer received a suspended prison term of 1 1/2 years and a fine of 10 million won.

According to data from National Industrial Security Center of National Intelligence Service, about 36 cases of illicit tech transfer resorting to a combined damage of 26.9 trillion won occurred from 2017 to September last year.