South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaking at a press conference

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced a cabinet reshuffle.Credit: Jung Yeon-je-Pool/Getty

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has nominated Choi Ki-young, who leads an effort to create semiconductor chips that mimic processes in the brain, to be the new minister of science, information and communication technologies.

Choi’s nomination comes amid growing tensions between South Korea and Japan, which imposed export restrictions on materials crucial to the South Korean semiconductor and electronic display industries in early July. The restrictions have left South Korean companies scrambling to secure alternative supplies, according to media reports.

Choi said he felt a “heavy responsibility” in assuming the position given the situation with Japan, according to Yonhap News Agency. “We need to find fundamental solutions to turn the current situation into an opportunity that can boost the country’s overall competitiveness,” he said.

Choi is one of eight ministerial positions Moon has announced as part of a long-planned cabinet reshuffle. He replaces Yoo Young-min.

Trade dispute

Since July, the Japanese government has insisted on approving every shipment to South Korea of photoresists and hydrogen fluoride, which are used to etch circuitry in semiconductors, as well as of fluorinated polyimide, which is used to manufacture smartphone displays. Previously, companies could get approval to export these goods for a set time. Industry experts predict that the new requirement could lead to major disruptions within months.

And on 2 August, Japan’s cabinet also removed South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners, raising the prospect of further restrictions. Moon has vowed to take corresponding measures. On Monday, South Korea removed Japan from its list of preferred trading partners.

When Japan announced the export restrictions, prime minister Shinzo Abe said that they were because of national-security concerns. But the move is widely seen as retaliation for South Korean court rulings last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans who were forced into factory labour during the Second World War, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule. Japan says the issue was settled when the two countries normalized relations in 1965.

Vacancy filled

Choi, at Seoul National University, also leads the Neural-Processing Research Center, an academic–industry partnership to develop semiconductor chips that mimic processes in the human brain.

His nomination ends months of speculation about the post. On 31 March, Moon withdrew his previous nomination, for Cho Dong-ho, an electrical engineer at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, after the government alleged he had failed to disclose that he had attended a 2017 conference hosted by OMICS International, a publisher in Hyderabad, India, that was accused of using deceptive practices earlier this year. In April, a US federal judge fined OMICS's founder Srinubabu Gedela and three of his companies US$50.1 million for not disclosing publication fees adequately and for overstated claims about peer review — a decision that OMICS said it would appeal. OMICS or Gedela did not respond to Natures requests for comment.

South Korean media has reported that the Moon administration has struggled for months to find a suitable nominee.

Choi will now face confirmation hearings in the National Assembly before Moon makes his appointment official.