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Japan's Trump-style trade move could be bad news for foldable phones

We could be in for more expensive smartphones and delayed foldable devices thanks to Japan's recent trade moves.

Published onJuly 1, 2019

Tech components and products made in South Korea, such as the Galaxy Fold, could be at risk.
  • Japan has announced that it is increasing export controls of tech-related materials to South Korea.
  • Materials affected by Japan’s move include materials used for flexible displays and semiconductors.
  • The move could potentially affect the foldable phone market, as well as the mobile market at large.

Japan has announced that it will tighten export controls of materials used in smartphones and chips by South Korean tech companies.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Japan has introduced significant export controls on fluorinated polyimide, which is said to be used in flexible smartphone displays, as well as resist. The controls also apply to high-purity hydrogen fluoride, used to create circuits on semiconductors.

South Korean companies will reportedly need to apply for special permission for each batch of the materials it orders. This doesn’t sound too bad at first glance, but it’s believed that the process could take roughly 90 days. The move is set to come into effect from Thursday, and it’s believed that Samsung, LG, and SK Hynix are affected by it.

Read: HUAWEI will be allowed to do business with U.S. companies again

A South Korean government official told the Wall Street Journal that the move was “economic retaliation” for a recent South Korean Supreme Court ruling. The court found that Japan’s Nippon Steel company should compensate South Koreans for slave labor during World War II.

“We have no choice but to say that the relationship of trust between Japan and South Korea has been strikingly damaged,” Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry was quoted as saying.

What does it mean for smartphones?

LG has confirmed that it doesn’t use fluorinated polyimide in its flexible displays, but it could potentially be a setback for Samsung in its quest to release the Galaxy Fold. Samsung’s first foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold, has already been delayed due to hardware woes.

Display Supply Chain Consultants told Bloomberg that Japan controls 90 percent of the market for polyimide used in flexible screens, so finding alternative sources could prove difficult. We’ve contacted Samsung’s representatives for any comment in this regard and will update the article accordingly.

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The move could also be a stumbling block for the smartphone industry at large. Samsung and SK Hynix supply the smartphone sector in general, producing RAM, storage, and other mobile components. This suggests that we could be in for a smartphone component shortage and/or higher prices as Korean firms try to source alternative materials and manufacturers search for more component suppliers.

Japan’s decision could also hurt the country’s own smartphone sector, as it’s not uncommon for manufacturers such as Sharp and Sony to use Korean components. Sharp, for example, has reportedly used Samsung’s flash storage in its own phones in recent years. Meanwhile, Sony is said to have signed an agreement with LG Display earlier this year for flexible screens.

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