‘Korean firm’ probed for violating US chip controls

A South Korean firm, managed by two Chinese chip engineers, reportedly is being probed by the United States Commerce Department for shipping American parts to sanctioned Chinese firms.

Ronda Korea Co Ltd was accused of having been selling parts developed by California-based Lam Research to Chinese firms under US sanctions, according to a report by The Information, a US news website. 

The report said several other South Korean companies are also being probed but it did not name them.

A spokesperson for Lam told The Information that Ronda Korea is not an authorized supplier of its products, and the company is actively engaged with the Commerce Department to ensure it is complying with chip export controls to China. Ronda did not reply to multiple requests from The Information for comments.

Public information shows that Ronda Korea is managed by two Chinese chip engineers, Wen Bingshu and Huang Yuantai, who had worked for Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment Inc China (AMEC) and the Institute of Microelectronics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMECAS), respectively.

The investigations came after the US Commerce Department‘s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) on March 29 issued a document to clarify and correct its October 2023 export controls on advanced computing, supercomputers and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. 

The clarification, effective from April 4, was aimed at making it harder for China to obtain US artificial intelligence (AI) chips and chip-making equipment, especially through third countries.  

The investigations of Ronda Korea commenced after Chinese Premier Li Qiang, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held their 9th trilateral summit in Seoul on May 27. They said then in a joint declaration that the three countries would increase science and technology cooperation.

Ronda Korea’s background

While Samsung and SK hynix are well known chipmakers, Ronda Korea is a nobody in South Korea.

According to Info-chipper.com, Ronda Korea is headquartered in Hwaseong and has a local telephone number. It does not have a company website. 

A job search website called Saramin showed that Ronda Korea is engaged in the “general product wholesale business.” Established in March 2019, the company has about 21 people and an office on the 15th floor of the KumKang Penterium IX Tower at 27 Dongtan Cheomdan Saneop. 

The same building also accommodates some foreign chip-making equipment suppliers, including Tokyo Electron and Switzerland’s Inficon. 

The establishment of Ronda Korea came after the US ordered the Netherlands’ ASML not to ship extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to China in early 2019.

In March last year, Ronda Materials, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ronda Korea, said it would invest at least 300 million yuan (US$41.43 million) to start a core precision part manufacturing project in Xi’an High-tech Industries Development Zone in Shaanxi province.

The project mainly produces consumables such as silicon electrodes, insulating parts and heat conduction parts, radio frequency transmitter parts and sealing rings for advanced semiconductor core precision etching.

The first phase commenced operation last October while the second phase will begin production in 2025. Ronda Korea said the project can generate revenue of 460 million yuan annually.

The mysterious ‘Wen Bingshu’’

According to a China Daily report published on March 23 last year, Ronda’s Chief Executive is called Wen Bingshu. Although the Chinese character for the name pronounced Wen in Mandarin is also used for the common Korean family name Moon, China Daily, a Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper, only called him Wen, not providing the Korean romanization. That suggests he is indeed Chinese although his company is in Korea.

Wen is reported to have worked with AMEC’s top engineers but his name, except with reference to the patents, does not turn up in an internet search. Nor does a photo of him. Huang kept a similarly low internet profile. It was their patents, which cannot be removed from the internet, that exposed their identities and networks.

Wen’s name appeared in four patents granted by China National Intellectual Property Administration between January 2013 and June 2014.

The patents concerned the formation method of semiconductor structure, micro-fabrication (etching), plasma cleaning and plasma confinement. They are all related to an important procedure called “plasma dry etching” in chip manufacturing.  

One of the co-owners of these four patents is Wu Ziyang, dry etch tech director of AMEC. Others include AMEC Senior Vice President Tom Ni and Vice President Su Xingcai.

Ni and Su had worked for Lam Research in 1995-2004 and 1998-2011, respectively, before joining AMEC.  

On January 31 this year, the US Department of Defense added AMEC to the Chinese Military Companies (CMC) list. AMEC said it had no connection with the military and no military investment while its products and services were used for civilian or commercial purposes.

In the Chinese version of the China Daily report, Ronda’s Chief Technology Officer is called Huang Wentai. Again, his name appeared in a series of patents about etching and chip-making processes. Other co-owners of the patents, including Li Junxie and Zhou Na, are still working for IMECAS.

Read: Huawei plans to make 3nm chips, but when?

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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