Tokyo goes to WTO over Seoul’s ban on iffy fish

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Tokyo goes to WTO over Seoul’s ban on iffy fish

The Japanese government Thursday filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) about the Korean government’s ban on imports of fishery products from eight towns on Japan’s east coast near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Korea was concerned the products were irradiated by the nuclear plant accident in 2011.

The Korean government expressed regret about the suit.

An official at the trade dispute settlement division at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said the government will convince the WTO dispute resolution panel of the legitimacy of the ban by submitting a health risk report a Korean independent commission has been working on since last year.

“This will help convince the WTO panels that protecting Korean people’s safety is as important as free trade activities,” added the official.

With Japan’s filing of the dispute with the WTO, the two countries must start a bilateral negotiation within a month. If the two fail to reach an agreement within two months, Japan can request the WTO to open a discussion panel.

The Korean government imposed an import ban in September 2013 on all fishery products from eight towns on the east coast near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Chiba, Gunma and Tochigi.

The 2013 measure lowered the allowed cesium level in Japanese exports from 370 becquerel per kilogram to 100 becquerel per kilogram. It also requested the Japanese government provide additional radiation test reports on strontium and plutonium in fishery and meat products from all parts of Japan if cesium was found.

The Japanese government immediately said Korea’s request was excessive and asked Korea to provide a radiation inspection report. The Korean government started researching the report by forming an inspection committee of 12 independent experts from academia last year. They did research in Korea and Japan.

Government officials said Korea can’t be overly confident about winning the dispute with Japan because it’s very difficult to scientifically prove the magnitude of radiation risk.

“It’s true that Korean inspection standards have been tougher than other countries,” said Lee Soo-doo, head of inspection at the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. He said Korea was the only country that requested Japan give data on radioactive nuclides like strontium and plutonium.

China banned imports of all food from 10 towns on the Japanese east coast, but inspections on imported food only involved cesium.

Another problem with the inspection report being worked on by the private committee is that a deadline was not given, according to Shin Hyun-seok, head of the fisheries policy department at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

Korea and Japan have recently resumed cooperation in economic affairs, holding a Finance Minister meeting in celebration of the 50th anniversary of normalizing diplomatic ties between the countries.

A government official at the Trade Ministry said if Korea loses the WTO complaint, the country will be requested to lift its import ban. If Korea refuses, the Japanese government may have the legal right to raise tariffs on Korean products or issue an import ban on Korea’s major exports to Japan.

BY KIM JI-YOON [kim.jiyoon@joongang.co.kr]

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