SK hynix says no Huawei its memory should be in Chinese wonder-phone

The Mate 60 Pro keeps making waves – this time worrying Korean chipmaker

If The Register ever ran an awards program*, the choice for 2023's Most Disruptive Smartphone would be easy: Huawei's Mate 60 Pro has created a geopolitical ruckus like no other device, now giving South Korean memory-maker SK hynix a supply chain and compliance mystery to ponder.

SK hynix is worried about the Mate 60 Pro because the teardown artists of TechInsight found its LPDDR5 memory inside the handset.

Yet the Korean chipmaker told Bloomberg it hasn't sold any of its product to Huawei since US sanctions were imposed on the Chinese company in 2020.

"SK hynix no longer does business with Huawei since the introduction of the US restrictions against the company and with regard to the issue we started an investigation to find out more details," the chip shop told Bloomberg.

In January 2020 SK hynix teased LPDDR5 memory for mobile devices, and in March 2021 trumpeted mass production of 18GB modules had commenced.

Huawei should not, therefore, have found it easy to get its hands on the memory. An alternative explanation would be it has stockpiled the stuff for years.

Which is a problem for SK hynix, as the US has granted it exemptions from some sanctions to allow its China-based operations to continue. If the chipmaker's surprise is feigned, trouble could lie ahead.

More likely is that Huawei has used "evasion routes" – the practice of acquiring and moving sanctioned products through grey markets – to get the kit it needs. Or perhaps it's just slapped hynix's name on some chips to mess with us all.

However the memory made it into the Huawei handset, the device has been welcomed in China with patriotic fervor that tops even the retail frenzy that once accompanied the debut of new iPhones.

The warm domestic welcome reflects a feeling that Huawei has managed to create a premium product without needing to import tech, and that US sanctions were implemented specifically to stop Huawei doing this sort of thing.

That the device is powered by a CPU that Chinese foundries were previously thought incapable of producing only adds to the significance of this handset.

"Discovering a Kirin chip using SMIC's 7nm (N+2) foundry process in the new Huawei Mate 60 Pro smartphone demonstrates the technical progress China's semiconductor industry has been able to make without EUV lithography tools," observed TechInsights' Dan Hutcheson. "The difficulty of this achievement also shows the resilience of the country's chip technological ability."

Hutcheson suggested the handset's existence may therefore spur further sanctions.

US authorities are reportedly thinking along similar lines, with investigations into whether sanctions were evaded to make the phone and its CPU apparently under way. ®

*We have no plans to run awards.

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