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Brinkmanship on both sides as battery dispute continues

By Kim Byung-wook

Published : March 15, 2021 - 16:06

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SK Innovation’s battery plant is under construction in Georgia. (SK Innovation) SK Innovation’s battery plant is under construction in Georgia. (SK Innovation)
The verdict on the trade secret dispute between South Korea’s two leading battery makers came out weeks ago. But the warring rivals show no sign of ending their hostility, with both parties going to extreme lengths to woo the highest official of the US to their side.

US President Joe Biden could make or break SK Innovation’s electric vehicle battery business in the states, as he has the right to overturn the US International Trade Court’s decision last month that slapped a 10-year business ban on the firm. Little is known about the Biden administration’s stance on the matter so far. The deadline for a veto is April 11.

First deploying a brinkmanship tactic was SKI, which the USITC ruled had misappropriated battery technologies from LG Chem. LG Chem spun out its battery business late last year to LG Energy Solution.

Instead of working on a settlement with LG, the firm chose to pressure Biden to take the unusual step of overriding the court’s decision, warning it might have to “abandon” two electric vehicle factories under construction in Georgia -- worth $2.6 billion combined -- should the ruling be upheld.

At stake is not just its own business, but thousands of US jobs and Biden’s push for electric cars, it argues. Georgia-based politicians joined forces, writing letters to the president on why the court-issued ban should be canceled and SKI should be allowed to continue doing business there.

“The livelihoods of thousands of Georgians are now in your hands,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was quoted as telling Biden in a letter Friday.

LG Energy Solution, in response, suggested that it could take over the rival’s Georgia operation to help address concerns raised by pro-SKI politicians in Georgia and to uphold the US’ principles on intellectual property protection.

LGES “is prepared to do whatever we can to help the people and workers of Georgia,” CEO Kim Jong-hyun said in a letter on Wednesday to freshman Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia. Warnock has been vocal about the issue, openly calling on Biden to intervene to salvage SKI’s Georgia investment.

In the letter, Kim also said that if an outside investor acquires the SKI’s Georgia plant, LGES could partner with it to run the plant.

“Multiple investors and manufacturers … will be interested in the Commerce plant due to increased demand for EV batteries,” Kim said.

LGES also announced on March 12 that it would build at least two more electric vehicle battery factories in the US.

Set for completion in 2025, the new factories will offer 70 gigawatt-hours of additional battery production capacity in the US, which is more than three times the 21.5 gigawatt-hours of SKI’s Georgia factory.

Other than competing for White House attention, little is known about whether the two Korean firms are negotiating to work out a deal.

Early reports said LGES has demanded 2.5 trillion won ($2.19 billion) to 3 trillion won in compensation, while SKI had suggested 800 billion won.

Last week, Kim Jong-hoon, chairman of SKI’s board of directors, told local media here that SKI might exit the US market or even quit the whole electric vehicle battery business, in a thinly veiled warning against LGES’ “excessive” demand.

“If SKI decides that running the Georgia plant while paying (settlement) money LGES demands is not conducive to shareholders’ interests, then it’s the right thing to quit the business,” said Kim, who was the chief negotiator in South Korea’s free trade negotiations with the US.

“I told the management that SKI should give up its battery business, or do the business somewhere else than the US.”

Unless SKI settles with LGES, the Georgia plant has to shut down in 2025.

By Kim Byung-wook (kbw@heraldcorp.com)