The Godfather of South Korea’s Chip Industry

They had been known as “Kim’s Mafia.” Kim Choong-Ki himself wouldn’t have put it that manner. But it surely 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 Technology (KAIST) assumed prime posts within the {industry} in addition to coveted positions educating or researching semiconductors at universities and authorities institutes. By the start of the twenty first century, South Korea had change into a dominant energy within the world 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 good success in remodeling the financial system of a nation that had simply began assembling radio units in 1959 and was fabricating outdated reminiscence chips within the early ’80s.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 might be traced partly 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 educate semiconductor engineering. From 1975, when the nation had barely begun producing its first transistors, to 2008, when he retired from educating, Kim skilled greater than 100 college students, successfully creating the primary two generations of South Korean semiconductor consultants.

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 strong 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 this moment, Kim stays largely unknown exterior of South Korea’s chip neighborhood. 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 day by day tour of the manufacturing facility,” the youthful Kim recollects. “He advised me that he might detect which machines had been in hassle 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 a substitute 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 concept. Shortly after, in the summertime of 1970, Fairchild Camera and Instrument employed Kim to work in its analysis and improvement 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 concept. 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 Conflict II, Fairchild Digicam had been the world’s leading developer of imaging tools, 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 gadgets 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 certainly one of these new sorts of chips: the charge-coupled gadget.

Simply the 12 months earlier than, in 1969, George E. Smith and Willard Boyle at Bell Laboratories
proposed the concept of the CCD, for which they might later win a Nobel Prize. But it surely was Kim and his colleagues at Fairchild who realized the primary CCD gadgets that developed into business merchandise extensively utilized in digital pictures, radiography, and astronomy. Kim turned so proficient in CCD know-how that different engineers on the firm commonly 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 improvement laboratories known as him “Professor CCD.”Chang Hae-Ja

Amongst different innovations, Kim helped develop a
CCD space picture sensor that tremendously 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 possible the wide applications in high-resolution cameras,” Columbia’s Yang says. With out these purposeful gadgets, he provides, “there can be no Nobel Prize for the CCD.”

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

At Fairchild, Kim additionally discovered easy methods 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 change into the “loudest-speaking” professor at KAIST, in accordance with a number of fellow school members, and so they 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 accountability to look after his widowed mom. Racial discrimination he skilled at Fairchild had additionally harm his pleasure. Most necessary, nevertheless, he had discovered a great place to work back home.

Then known as KAIS (the “T” was added in 1981), Kim’s new employer was the primary science and know-how college in South Korea and stays one of the prestigious. The South Korean authorities had established the institute in 1971 with financing from america Company for Worldwide Growth 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 purpose to “fulfill the wants of Korean {industry} and Korean industrial institutions for extremely skilled and modern specialists, quite than so as to add to the world’s retailer of fundamental information.” It was the proper 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 bold grasp’s and doctoral candidates from nearly the second he arrived within the spring of 1975. The first purpose 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 gadgets, as did electronics corporations 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 fundamental built-in circuits resembling CMOS watch chips, largely as a result of a scarcity of semiconductor specialists. For 20 years, till the mid-Nineties, becoming a member of Kim’s lab was primarily 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 ready academics and correct amenities, together with clear rooms for assembling high-quality chips.

But it surely wasn’t KAIST’s digital monopoly on semiconductor coaching that made Kim a mentor with out peer. He launched a mode of educating and of mastering engineering that was new to South Korea. For example, his conviction that an “engineer’s thoughts” requires equal elements concept 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 severe work in design and development.

Due to this fact, one of many first classes Kim taught his college students was easy methods to use their palms. Earlier than they launched into their very own initiatives, he put them to work cleansing the lab, repairing and upgrading tools, and monitoring down needed elements. On this manner, they discovered easy methods to remedy issues for themselves and easy methods 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. A lot 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 assume how first.” And: “Flawed choice is best than sluggish choice.”

Kim’s former college students keep in mind him as variety, humorous, nonauthoritarian, meticulous, and hardworking. However additionally they say he was strict and may very well 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 students entered the lab via a ladder from the rooftop to bypass Kim’s office. One among his greatest grievances was when college students didn’t correctly stability concept and apply. “Make it your self; then we’ll begin a dialogue,” he scolded those that targeted an excessive amount of on mental research. Then again, he mentioned, “Why don’t you utilize one thing malleable inside the onerous 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.

Kim influenced not solely his personal college students but in addition numerous others via 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 achieve 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 know-how, recounts looking for out Kim’s tutelage when Chin was a graduate pupil at Seoul Nationwide College within the mid-Nineteen 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 improvement on the government-funded
Korea Institute of Electronics Know-how, which developed each 32-kilobit and 64-kilobit ROM beneath his directorship. His fashionable semiconductor workshops at KAIST impressed GoldStar (LG since 1995), Hyundai Electronics (Hynix since 2001), and Samsung to sponsor their very own coaching packages at KAIST within the Nineties. Kim’s shut partnership with these corporations additionally helped launch different pioneering mostly-industry-funded initiatives at KAIST, together with the Middle for Excessive-Efficiency Built-in Methods and the Built-in-Circuit Design Training Middle, 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 Middle for Electro-Optics, a authorities analysis institute shaped to develop applied sciences for thermal imaging, fiber optics, and lasers.Chang Hae-Ja

The Evolution of South Korea’s Semiconductor Trade

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 might be divided into three durations. Through 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} improvement, establishing analysis institutes, and urgent corporations and universities to pay extra consideration to semiconductor know-how. Samsung and different electronics corporations wouldn’t get severe about manufacturing semiconductor gadgets till the early Eighties. So when Kim began his lab, nearly a decade prior, he was coaching engineers to fulfill 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 world 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, certainly one of Kim’s first grasp’s candidates, whom Samsung despatched to review at KAIST in 1976. Lim would go on to steer the event of assorted reminiscence gadgets 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 resembling Hyundai and GoldStar to do likewise. In consequence, the South Korean chip {industry} quickly expanded. KAIST and different universities supplied the required manpower, and the federal government diminished 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 army use), and fast thermal processing (which elevated effectivity and reduced costs of semiconductor manufacturing)—and revealed their ends in 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 change into vice chairman and CEO of Samsung Electronics. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Pictures

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 developing DRAM and flash memory at Hyundai before becoming a star professor at the National University 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.

Through the third interval, from 2000 on, {industry} seized the helm of semiconductor improvement. Academia churned out extra specialists in addition to vital analysis, with minimal contribution from authorities. Alumni of Kim’s lab continued to steer semiconductor engineering, a few of them rising to change into 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 a lot of the 2010s, when the corporate dominated the world market in not solely reminiscence but in addition cellphones, TVs, and residential home equipment.

Different alums played key roles in semiconductor analysis and improvement. 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 a lot of the firm’s reminiscence merchandise. In academia, in the meantime, Kim had change into a mannequin to emulate. A lot of his trainees adopted his strategies and rules in educating and mentoring their very own college students to change into leaders within the subject, making certain a gentle provide of extremely expert semiconductor engineers for generations to come back.

Within the spring of 2007, lower than a 12 months earlier than Kim turned 65—the obligatory retirement age in South Korean academia—KAIST elected him as certainly one of its first distinguished professors, thus extending his tenure for all times. Moreover the Ho-Am Prize, he has garnered quite a few different awards through the years, together with the Order of Civil Advantage for “excellent meritorious providers…within the curiosity of bettering residents’ welfare and selling nationwide improvement.” And in 2019, he was named a Particular person of Distinguished Service to Science and Know-how, one of many nation’s highest honors.

Legend and Legacy

For younger semiconductor engineers in South Korea right this moment, Kim Choong-Ki is a legend—the good unsung hero behind their nation’s ascendancy in chip manufacturing. However its dominance on the planet market is now beneath menace. Though South Korea has competed furiously with Taiwan in current many years, its most formidable challenger sooner or later will seemingly be China, whose bold
Made in China 2025 plan prioritizes semiconductor improvement. 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 america, Japan, and South Korea—implies that Chinese language semiconductor corporations might quickly change into main world rivals.

Compounding the issue, the South Korean authorities has uncared for its position in supporting chip improvement within the twenty first century. Practically 50 years after Kim started educating its first semiconductor engineers, the {industry} once more faces a major 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 corporations’ pleas for extra staff and universities’ requires policies that advance educational schooling and analysis, the federal government has carried out little.

Towards the top of his profession, Kim had change into involved with the constraints of the form of “engineer’s thoughts” that had taken root in South Korea. “The financial improvement of Korea was depending on reverse engineering and following superior nations,” he mentioned in an interview in 1997. That fast-follower strategy, he added, relied on an academic system that taught college students “easy methods to learn maps”—to determine a recognized product purpose and plot a course for attaining it. “And who made the maps? Superior nations.” He thus concluded, “We now have to alter our instructional coverage and educate our college students how to attract maps.”

Kim himself might not have absolutely realized this bold imaginative and prescient of cultivating a rustic of creative-minded engineers, able to pioneering actually groundbreaking applied sciences which may secure 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 depends upon it.

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

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