WTO ruling on Fukushima food products not the end of Japan-Korea trade spat

By Lester Wan contact

- Last updated on GMT

A WTO panel upheld Japan’s complaint against South Korea’s import ban on Japanese fishery produce since the Fukushima disaster. ©GettyImages
A WTO panel upheld Japan’s complaint against South Korea’s import ban on Japanese fishery produce since the Fukushima disaster. ©GettyImages

Related tags: South korea, Japan, International trade

Japan appears to have won the latest World Trade Organization (WTO) battle over South Korea's post-Fukushima disaster food import ban and restrictions, but the trade spat between the East Asian giants looks set to continue.

A WTO dispute settlement panel upheld Japan’s complaint against South Korea’s import ban on Japanese fishery produce as well as extra testing measures still in place after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011.

The dispute panel released a report saying that South Korea should correct such measures as they go against WTO rules.

Japan first lodged a complaint with the WTO in 2015 on this basis, saying that South Korea’s food safety claims had no scientific foundation and went against free trade laws, and requested tri-partisan consultations (with the WTO) on the matter. However, talks between the two countries broke down and Japan went on to seek an unequivocal ruling from the WTO.

Japan: Levels safe

Japan stated that the radioactive levels in produce from the affected regions were safe, and that several countries had already completely lifted or eased restrictions.

According to The Yomiuri Shimbun​, Japan especially called for the ban to be lifted on 28 seafood or fishery products to be able to be exported to South Korea, such as bonito, saury and abalone.

“Japan welcomes the WTO’s panel report, which reflected our position. We request South Korea to correct swiftly and with sincerity its import restriction measures that were recognised as violating the WTO rules,” ​said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Forestry (MAFF) spokesperson.

Korea: Not on the table

Nonetheless, South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy has stated that it will appeal the WTO decision, which is equivalent to a court ruling.

The country is adamant on retaining the ban and measures, said to be for the nation’s food safety and health.

“Despite this ruling, the current import ban will remain in force, and the government will make its utmost efforts to ensure radiation-contaminated food does not reach the dinner table,” ​said a strongly-worded statement from South Korea’s trade ministry.

The appeal has to be filed to a higher panel of the WTO, equivalent to a court of second instance, within 60 days. Failing which, the WTO decision will be final.

Japan would also be entitled to repercussive measures if South Korea refuses to lift the ban, such as raising import tariffs on South Korean products.

MAFF Minister Ken Saito said the appeal was regrettable.

"Japan will respond accordingly so that our position will be accepted by the Appellate Body as well. We will also call on South Korea to sincerely and promptly correct their (import ban) measures," ​he said

Pushing other nations

Japan has taken the WTO’s stand as new impetus to step up pressure on other countries.

China recently set up a committee to further discuss with Japan the possibility of easing the ban.

Taiwan said earlier this month that it could soon review its ban on imports​ from five Japanese prefectures, in a bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

A number of countries, including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Thailand and the US, have either lifted the ban or relaxed restrictions on the importing of Japanese produce.

While some have maintained import bans, South Korea is, so far, the first and only country to receive a formal complaint from Japan.

According to the Japanese government, South Korea had imported 10.9 billion yen (US$102m) worth of Japanese seafood in the year up to August 2013 but the amount plunged to 8.4 billion yen following South Korea’s expansion of the ban that year to encompass all seafood from eight Japanese prefectures.

Previously, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had also called on Asean nations to lift the ban​, at the Asean Plus Three summit in Manila.

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