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THE ASIA BOOM : Research : Risks, Windfalls Found in Developing Technology : South Korea scored success by climbing onto cutting edge of computer production. Smaller economies must use funds for basic needs.

November 29, 1994|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Lee Jong Gil was well established as a Silicon Valley electronics engineer when Samsung Electronics Co. enticed him back to his native South Korea.

With a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame plus six years of experience in U.S. electronics firms, Lee joined a team of mostly U.S.-trained South Korean researchers who set out to bring Samsung into the front ranks of the world's semiconductor manufacturers.

Dramatic success in that decade-long effort was marked in August when Samsung announced that the research center now headed by Lee had produced the world's first fully working example of a powerful semiconductor called a 256 megabit dynamic random access memory chip, or 256M DRAM.

This next-generation semiconductor, which is also being developed by competing firms around the world, is capable of giving personal computers vastly increased memory capacity and operating speed. Such chips will play a key role in the multimedia era as personal computers handle text, video and sound with ever greater ease. Expected to be a key component in computers made around the year 2000, the 256M DRAM chip will also be valuable in producing high-definition television sets.

Samsung's success marks the high priority that Asian economies are placing on research and development, long the foundation of Western advances.

Efforts by Samsung and other South Korean electronics firms to develop their own cutting-edge semiconductor technology reflect the growing trend. Japan became a world leader in technology years ago. But now corporations and governments in other countries of the region have also begun pouring resources into domestic R&D targeted at selected fields of strong potential growth.

Technology transfers from the United States, Japan or Europe through purchase, licensing, joint ventures and outright piracy retain a central role in the region's growth. But there is a growing sense that, as more countries aim to catch up with the world's industrial leaders in the early 21st Century, reliance on these measures alone is not enough.

"In the early stage of economic development, R&D is not very important. Foreign companies . . . bring technology to take advantage of the lower labor costs," said Lee Youn Ho, an analyst at the Lucky-Goldstar Economic Research Institute. "But when economic development reaches some level, you have to have your own R&D. Korea is such a case. The last 20 or 30 years we didn't emphasize R&D. But at this moment, we realize that R&D is very important to move this economy to a more advanced level."

In the case of semiconductors, research is an essential ingredient in maintaining competitiveness, said Samsung's Lee, who now heads the firm's Semiconductor Research and Development Center. "Technology and products are just so intertwined in the high-technology area that if you are behind in technology, you are behind also in manufacturing," he said.

The basic challenge in making more powerful memory chips is to develop the ability to etch ever smaller patterns onto tiny wafers.

"It involves lots of laboratory work, and also computer simulation, analysis of data and planning," Lee said. "The crux of the issue is to make this patterning capability to the maximum."

But there is a "price you have to pay to be leading edge," he added. "The future is unclear. There is always risk involved."

For countries at lower economic levels, funding of domestic R&D remains a controversial strategy not only because of the risks involved but also because of the necessity of diverting funds from more immediate needs.

In Indonesia, for example, Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie has been a forceful advocate for development of an indigenous aircraft industry, but the expensive project faces many critics.

Habibie's attitude is illustrated by the story of a visitor who reportedly spoke with him several years ago across a conference table strewn with model airplanes. Habibie stepped into another room and came back with a personal letter from Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of Britain, praising his vision for Indonesian high-tech industry.

"You see, I'm not crazy," Habibie said. "I have to start. Somebody has to start."

At a cost so far of $650 million in government funds, the project has succeeded to the degree that its first completed airplane, a locally designed 70-seat twin turboprop called the N-250-100, was unveiled this month in a ceremony presided over by Indonesian President Suharto. But prospects for commercial success remain uncertain.

Some analysts argue that economic growth in poor countries is better served by devoting more resources to basic education rather than development of high technology. But others insist that even in countries such as China and Indonesia, it is worthwhile to devote some resources to building up a high-tech sector, complete with domestic R&D capabilities.

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