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The Godfather of South Korea’s Chip Business

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They had been known as “Kim’s Mafia.” Kim Choong-Ki himself wouldn’t have put it that manner. Nevertheless it was true what semiconductor engineers in South Korea whispered about his former college students: They had been all over the place.

Beginning within the mid-Eighties, as chip manufacturing within the nation accelerated, engineers who had studied beneath Kim at
Korea Superior Institute of Science and Expertise (KAIST) assumed high posts within the {industry} in addition to coveted positions instructing or researching semiconductors at universities and authorities institutes. By the start of the twenty first century, South Korea had grow to be a dominant energy within the international semiconductor market, assembly greater than 60 % of worldwide demand for reminiscence chips alone. Around the globe, lots of Kim’s protégés had been lauded for his or her sensible success in reworking the economic system of a nation that had simply began assembling radio units in 1959 and was fabricating outdated reminiscence chips within the early ’80s.


That success may be traced partially to Kim, now an emeritus professor at KAIST. Of common top, with grey hair since his mid-30s, he was the primary professor in South Korea to systematically train semiconductor engineering. From 1975, when the nation had barely begun producing its first transistors, to 2008, when he retired from instructing, Kim skilled greater than 100 college students, successfully creating the primary two generations of South Korean semiconductor specialists.

A crowd of more than two dozen people seated and standing atop a rock formation. A large white sign is at center.Kim and his former college students and their households have a good time his sixtieth birthday on the summit of South Korea’s Mount Deokyu.Chang Hae-Ja

The Samsung Welfare Basis acknowledged Kim’s affect when it
awarded him its prestigious Ho-Am Prize in 1993 for “constructing a stable basis for Korea’s semiconductor {industry}.” Since then, he has been revered within the South Korean media because the {industry}’s “godfather.” But even right now, Kim stays largely unknown exterior of South Korea’s chip group. Who, then, is that this inconspicuous semiconductor “Mafia” boss?

A Begin in Digicam Chips

Kim Choong-Ki was born in Seoul in 1942, when Korea was a colony of the Japanese Empire. His mom taught elementary college; his father, Kim Byung-Woon, was a textile engineer for
Kyungbang, Korea’s iconic producer of yarns and materials. The elder Kim had helped construct the corporate’s first spinning manufacturing facility, and his engineering savvy and consequent renown impressed his son. “He made a each day tour of the manufacturing facility,” the youthful Kim recollects. “He informed me that he may detect which machines had been in bother and why, simply by listening to them.” Such classes planted the seed of an ethos that will drive Kim Choong-Ki’s profession—what he got here to name the “engineer’s thoughts.”

Rising up, Kim Choong-Ki was a mannequin South Korean pupil: bookish, obedient, and silent. Though his household pressed him to hitch his father within the textile {industry}, he as an alternative selected to pursue electrical engineering. He studied at Seoul Nationwide College after which at Columbia College, in New York Metropolis, the place he earned his doctorate beneath
Edward S. Yang, a specialist in transistor principle. Shortly after, in the summertime of 1970, Fairchild Digicam and Instrument employed Kim to work in its analysis and growth laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif.

A young man in a jacket and tie stands before a pillared building with dozens of steps leading up to it.Kim, proven on the Columbia campus, studied for his Ph.D. on the college beneath Edward S. Yang, a specialist in transistor principle. Chang Hae-Ja

A woman with short grey hair is seated at a table. Behind her stand an older man in a hat and young man.Kim’s mom and father, a famend Korean textile engineer, go to him in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1971.Chang Hae-Ja

Since World Battle II, Fairchild Digicam had been the world’s main developer of imaging gear, together with radar cameras, radio compasses, and X-ray machines. In 1957, the corporate launched the division Fairchild Semiconductor to manufacture transistors and built-in circuits from silicon, then an modern transfer, as most semiconductor units on the time used germanium. The enterprise spawned dozens of merchandise, together with the primary silicon built-in circuit, thus fueling the rise of Silicon Valley. As a newcomer to Fairchild’s R&D lab, Kim was put to work on one in every of these new sorts of chips: the charge-coupled system.

Simply the yr earlier than, in 1969, George E. Smith and Willard Boyle at Bell Laboratories
proposed the thought of the CCD, for which they’d later win a Nobel Prize. Nevertheless it was Kim and his colleagues at Fairchild who realized the primary CCD units that developed into industrial merchandise broadly utilized in digital images, radiography, and astronomy. Kim turned so proficient in CCD expertise that different engineers on the firm frequently dropped by his workplace on the finish of the day to select his mind. “Quickly they started to name me Professor CCD,” he remembers.

A young man in a jacket and tie stands in front of a pale brick wall with lettering attached.Kim’s colleagues at Fairchild Semiconductor’s analysis and growth laboratories known as him “Professor CCD.”Chang Hae-Ja

Amongst different innovations, Kim helped develop a
CCD space picture sensor that enormously improved low-light detection and the primary two-phase CCD linear picture sensor—which, he reported, assured “the convenience of use and the top quality of picture copy.” “Fairchild’s—or higher name them Choong-Ki’s—CCDs made attainable the extensive purposes in high-resolution cameras,” Columbia’s Yang says. With out these useful units, he provides, “there could be no Nobel Prize for the CCD.”

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Kim’s time at Fairchild reworked him as a lot because it did digital camera expertise. His education in South Korea and at Columbia had primarily emphasised ebook studying and principle. However his expertise at Fairchild solidified his perception, first impressed by his father, {that a} true “engineer’s thoughts” requires sensible talent as a lot as theoretical data. Along with performing experiments, he made a behavior of studying inner technical reviews and memos that he discovered on the firm library, a few of which he later dropped at KAIST and used as instructing materials.

At Fairchild, Kim additionally realized the way to talk with and lead different engineers. When he began there, he was soft-spoken and introverted, however his mentors at Fairchild inspired him to specific himself confidently and clearly. Later, the transformed Kim would grow to be the “loudest-speaking” professor at KAIST, in keeping with a number of fellow school members, they usually say his absence made the entire campus appear quiet.

Kim rose shortly inside Fairchild’s hierarchy. However simply 5 years into his tenure, he returned to South Korea. His beloved father had died, and, because the eldest son, he felt a heavy duty to take care of his widowed mom. Racial discrimination he skilled at Fairchild had additionally harm his satisfaction. Most necessary, nonetheless, he had discovered a great place to work again house.

Then known as KAIS (the “T” was added in 1981), Kim’s new employer was the primary science and expertise college in South Korea and stays one of the prestigious. The South Korean authorities had established the institute in 1971 with financing from the USA Company for Worldwide Improvement and had invited
Frederick E. Terman, the legendary dean of Stanford College’s college of engineering and a “father” of Silicon Valley, to attract up the blueprint for its course. Terman burdened that KAIS ought to goal to “fulfill the wants of Korean {industry} and Korean industrial institutions for extremely skilled and modern specialists, relatively than so as to add to the world’s retailer of primary data.” It was the right place for Kim to unfold his newfound philosophy of the “engineer’s thoughts.”

South Korea’s Founding Lab

Kim’s laboratory at KAIS attracted scores of formidable grasp’s and doctoral candidates from nearly the second he arrived within the spring of 1975. The first cause for the lab’s reputation was apparent: South Korean college students had been hungry to find out about semiconductors. The federal government touted the significance of those units, as did electronics firms like GoldStar and Samsung, which wanted them to fabricate their radios, televisions, microwaves, and watches. However the {industry} had but to mass-produce its personal chips past primary built-in circuits similar to CMOS watch chips, largely on account of a scarcity of semiconductor specialists. For 20 years, till the mid-Nineties, becoming a member of Kim’s lab was basically the one manner for aspiring semiconductor engineers in South Korea to get hands-on coaching; KAIS was the one college within the nation that had in a position lecturers and correct amenities, together with clear rooms for assembling high-quality chips.

Nevertheless it wasn’t KAIST’s digital monopoly on semiconductor coaching that made Kim a mentor with out peer. He launched a mode of instructing and of mastering engineering that was new to South Korea. As an illustration, his conviction that an “engineer’s thoughts” requires equal components principle and utility at first puzzled his college students, who regarded engineering as mainly a scholarly self-discipline. Though they had been proficient in arithmetic and properly learn, most of them had by no means carried out any critical work in design and building.

Subsequently, one of many first classes Kim taught his college students was the way to use their fingers. Earlier than they launched into their very own initiatives, he put them to work cleansing the lab, repairing and upgrading gear, and monitoring down obligatory components. On this manner, they realized the way to clear up issues for themselves and the way to improvise in conditions for which no textbook had ready them. Their view of what it means to be an engineer modified profoundly and completely. Lots of them confess they nonetheless repeat Kim’s dicta to today. For instance: “Don’t select the themes that others have already thrown into the trash can.” And: “Scientists contemplate
why first, however we engineers should suppose how first.” And: “Mistaken resolution is healthier than sluggish resolution.”

Kim’s former college students bear in mind him as sort, humorous, nonauthoritarian, meticulous, and hardworking. However additionally they say he was strict and might be scorching tempered and even terrifying, particularly when he thought they had been being lazy or sloppy. Legend has it that a few of his college students entered the lab through a ladder from the rooftop to bypass Kim’s workplace. Considered one of his greatest grievances was when college students did not correctly steadiness principle and apply. “Make it your self; then we are going to begin a dialogue,” he scolded those that targeted an excessive amount of on mental research. Alternatively, he stated, “Why don’t you utilize one thing malleable inside the laborious nut in your neck?” as a reproach to those that spent an excessive amount of time constructing issues, implying that they need to additionally use their brains.

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Kim influenced not solely his personal college students but additionally numerous others by way of his openness. He cooperated with and even shared laboratory area with different KAIST professors, and he favored to go to different departments and universities to provide seminars or just to realize new concepts and views—conduct that was, and nonetheless is, very uncommon in South Korean educational tradition. In his autobiography,
Chin Dae-Je, who developed 16-megabit DRAM at Samsung in 1989 and later served as South Korea’s minister of knowledge and expertise, recounts looking for out Kim’s tutelage when Chin was a graduate pupil at Seoul Nationwide College within the mid-Seventies. “There was an intense spirit of competitors” between SNU and KAIST, recollects Chin, whose alma matter labeled him a “downside pupil” for learning with a rival professor.

Kim’s collegiality prolonged past academia to {industry} and authorities . Within the early Eighties, throughout a sabbatical, he led semiconductor analysis and growth on the government-funded
Korea Institute of Electronics Expertise, which developed each 32-kilobit and 64-kilobit ROM beneath his directorship. His common semiconductor workshops at KAIST impressed GoldStar (LG since 1995), Hyundai Electronics (Hynix since 2001), and Samsung to sponsor their very own coaching applications at KAIST within the Nineties. Kim’s shut partnership with these firms additionally helped launch different pioneering mostly-industry-funded initiatives at KAIST, together with the Heart for Excessive-Efficiency Built-in Methods and the Built-in-Circuit Design Schooling Heart, each directed by Kim’s former pupil Kyung Chong-Min. And the semiconductor {industry}, in flip, benefited from the ever extra extremely skilled workforce rising from Kim’s orbit.

More than three dozen people stand in in four rows. A bald man is at the center of the front row.Kim [front row, orange tie] additionally served as director of Korea’s Heart for Electro-Optics, a authorities analysis institute fashioned to develop applied sciences for thermal imaging, fiber optics, and lasers.Chang Hae-Ja

The Evolution of South Korea’s Semiconductor Business

Two men in academic robes and mortar caps face the camera. Others in similar dress or in suits appear the background facing in different directions.Chung Jin-Yong [right], a former pupil of Kim [left], developed DRAM for Hynix after graduating from KAIST in 1976.Chang Hae-Ja

Kim’s lab at KAIST developed in parallel with the expansion of the semiconductor sector in South Korea, which may be divided into three intervals. In the course of the first interval, starting within the mid-Nineteen Sixties, the federal government led the cost by enacting legal guidelines and drawing up plans for {industry} growth, establishing analysis institutes, and urgent firms and universities to pay extra consideration to semiconductor expertise. Samsung and different electronics firms wouldn’t get critical about manufacturing semiconductor units till the early Eighties. So when Kim began his lab, nearly a decade prior, he was coaching engineers to satisfy the {industry}’s
future wants.

His first group of scholars labored totally on the design and fabrication of semiconductors utilizing PMOS, NMOS, and CMOS applied sciences that, whereas not leading edge by international requirements, had been fairly superior for the South Korea of the time. As a result of there have been few {industry} jobs, many alumni of Kim’s lab took positions at authorities analysis institutes, the place they developed state-of-the-art experimental chips. An exception was Lim Hyung-Kyu, one in every of Kim’s first grasp’s candidates, whom Samsung despatched to check at KAIST in 1976. Lim would go on to steer the event of assorted reminiscence units at Samsung, most significantly NAND flash reminiscence within the Nineties.

The second interval began in 1983, when Samsung declared that it might pursue semiconductors aggressively, beginning with DRAM. The transfer drove rival conglomerates similar to Hyundai and GoldStar to do likewise. In consequence, the South Korean chip {industry} quickly expanded. KAIST and different universities offered the required manpower, and the federal government decreased its position. In Kim’s lab, college students started to discover rising applied sciences—together with polysilicon thin-film transistors (for LCD panels), infrared sensors (for navy use), and speedy thermal processing (which elevated effectivity and decreased prices of semiconductor manufacturing)—and printed their leads to prestigious worldwide journals.

Seven men in academic robes and three others in suits stand shoulder to shoulder.KAIST engineering professors Kim [center, gray robe] and Kwon Younger-Se [right, blue hood] pose with grasp’s graduates in 1982. Chang Hae-Ja

A bespectacled man in a suit smiles while holding a smartphone.Kim’s former grasp’s pupil, Kwon Oh-Hyun, rose to grow to be vice chairman and CEO of Samsung Electronics. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Pictures

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KAIST graduates flocked to Samsung, GoldStar/LG, and Hyundai/Hynix. As authorities affect declined, some alums from the primary interval who had labored at authorities analysis institutes additionally took company jobs. On the similar time, an increasing number of of Kim’s former college students accepted college professorships. After leaving Kim’s lab in 1991, for example, Cho Byung-Jin spent 4 years creating DRAM and flash reminiscence at Hyundai earlier than changing into a star professor on the Nationwide College of Singapore and later at KAIST. Kyung Chong-Min, Kim’s first doctoral candidate, joined KAIST’s school in 1983; by the point he retired in 2018, Kyung had skilled extra semiconductor specialists than Kim himself.

In the course of the third interval, from 2000 on, {industry} seized the helm of semiconductor growth. Academia churned out extra specialists in addition to important analysis, with minimal contribution from authorities. Alumni of Kim’s lab continued to steer semiconductor engineering, a few of them rising to grow to be high-ranking executives. For instance,
Kwon Oh-Hyun, who acquired his grasp’s diploma from KAIST in 1977, served as CEO at Samsung Electronics for many of the 2010s, when the corporate dominated the world market in not solely reminiscence but additionally cellphones, TVs, and residential home equipment.

Different alums performed key roles in semiconductor analysis and growth. Ha Yong-Min at LG Show mastered TFT-LCD and OLED screens for tablets, pocket book computer systems, and cellphones; Park Sung-Kye, generally known as the “treasure of Hynix,” developed many of the firm’s reminiscence merchandise. In academia, in the meantime, Kim had grow to be a mannequin to emulate. Lots of his trainees adopted his strategies and rules in instructing and mentoring their very own college students to grow to be leaders within the area, guaranteeing a gentle provide of extremely expert semiconductor engineers for generations to return.

Within the spring of 2007, lower than a yr earlier than Kim turned 65—the obligatory retirement age in South Korean academia—KAIST elected him as one in every of its first distinguished professors, thus extending his tenure for all times. In addition to the Ho-Am Prize, he has garnered quite a few different awards over time, together with the Order of Civil Benefit for “excellent meritorious providers…within the curiosity of bettering residents’ welfare and selling nationwide growth.” And in 2019, he was named a Particular person of Distinguished Service to Science and Expertise, one of many nation’s highest honors.

Legend and Legacy

For younger semiconductor engineers in South Korea right now, Kim Choong-Ki is a legend—the nice unsung hero behind their nation’s ascendancy in chip manufacturing. However its dominance on this planet market is now beneath risk. Though South Korea has competed furiously with Taiwan in current many years, its most formidable challenger sooner or later will possible be China, whose formidable
Made in China 2025 plan prioritizes semiconductor growth. Since 2000, the nation has been a serious importer of South Korean chips. However China’s current heavy funding in semiconductors and the supply of extremely educated Chinese language engineers—together with semiconductor specialists skilled in the USA, Japan, and South Korea—implies that Chinese language semiconductor firms may quickly grow to be main international opponents.

Compounding the issue, the South Korean authorities has uncared for its position in supporting chip growth within the twenty first century. Almost 50 years after Kim started educating its first semiconductor engineers, the {industry} once more faces a big workforce scarcity. Specialists estimate that
a number of thousand new engineering specialists are wanted every year, however the nation produces only some hundred. But regardless of firms’ pleas for extra employees and universities’ requires insurance policies that advance educational training and analysis, the federal government has achieved little.

Towards the top of his profession, Kim had grow to be involved with the restrictions of the sort of “engineer’s thoughts” that had taken root in South Korea. “The financial growth of Korea was depending on reverse engineering and following superior nations,” he stated in an interview in 1997. That fast-follower method, he added, relied on an academic system that taught college students “the way to learn maps”—to establish a identified product objective and plot a course for attaining it. “And who made the maps? Superior nations.” He thus concluded, “We now have to vary our academic coverage and train our college students how to attract maps.”

Kim himself might not have absolutely realized this formidable imaginative and prescient of cultivating a rustic of creative-minded engineers, able to pioneering actually groundbreaking applied sciences which may safe his nation’s management on the world stage. However hopefully his successors have taken his recommendation to coronary heart. The way forward for South Korea will depend on it.

To learn extra, see “Switch of ‘Engineer’s Thoughts’: Kim Choong-Ki and the Semiconductor Business in South Korea,” Engineering Research 11:2 (2019), 83-108.

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