Korea-Japan row discussed at WTO in Geneva

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Korea-Japan row discussed at WTO in Geneva

Korea slammed Japan’s export restrictions during a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting, accusing Tokyo of using “trade as a political tool.”

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Korea’s representative to the WTO General Council meeting in Geneva on Wednesday warned Japan against measures implemented earlier this month that restrict three categories of exports to Korea, saying they threaten the multilateral trade order established by the WTO.

During the meeting, Kim Seung-ho, chief of the Trade Ministry’s office of international trade and legal affairs, argued against Japan’s measures, explaining that they were motivated by a diplomatic row between the two countries over a Korean court decision on wartime forced laborers.

Kim said the restrictions “disrupt trade for political purposes,” arguing that Tokyo implemented the measures to deliberately target Korea’s semiconductor industry and pressed for their withdrawal.

In response, Japan’s representative stated that its export measures were unrelated to the dispute over wartime forced labor. The official added that the matter was unfit for discussion by the trade body as they were based on security considerations.

Korea’s representatives requested a separate discussion with their Japanese counterparts at the meeting, expressing frustration at the lack of dialogue between the two countries over the matter. Japan remained unresponsive.

The General Council meeting did not make a decision on the matter, as originally planned, and other members refrained from speaking on the trade row, according to Korea’s Trade Ministry.

Only the General Council’s current chair, Sunanta Kangvalkulkij, Thailand’s representative to the trade body, commented on the issue, saying she hoped for a cordial resolution between the two countries.

The dispute is growing as Japan plans to remove Korea from its so-called “white list” of countries receiving preferential trade treatment.

The first step for the removal - accepting opinions - ended Wednesday. Removal from that list would impact many products from Japan imported to Korea.

Speculation, however, has grown in Seoul that Tokyo may not immediately make a decision to remove Korea from the “white list.” Until now, many expected that the decision to be finalized in late July or early August through a cabinet meeting.

As Japan routinely holds cabinet meetings every Tuesday and Friday, speculation was high that the decision could be approved today. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started his summer vacation and is scheduled to return to work next week.

Japan also collected 30,000 public opinions by the Wednesday deadline. Tokyo has around two weeks to review them, but the period can be extended if there are many comments.

If Japan’s decision is delayed, Korea would have more time to campaign against the export restrictions in the international community and prepare for a looming supply crisis.

Top Korean officials, including President Moon Jae-in, have pledged to resolve the matter diplomatically, and Korea’s upcoming Aug. 15 Liberation Day holiday will be a crucial juncture. A commemoration speech by the Korean president has long served as an opportunity to send a message to Japan, and this year’s address will be particularly important.

Expected reshuffles of the Japanese cabinet and the ruling party leadership around September following recent legislative election are also seen as significant political events.

The enthronement ceremony of Japan’s new emperor on Oct. 22 is also expected to serve as a crucial opportunity to resolve the bilateral spat, as will be one of Japan’s largest diplomatic events in recent years. Dignitaries from 195 foreign countries were invited.

Meanwhile, trade bodies expressed concerns over the growing conflict. The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea urged a resolution on Thursday.

BY CHAE YUN-HWAN, SER MYO-JA [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]
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