S. Korea and Japan battle it out at WTO General Council

Kim Seung-ho (center), deputy minister of the office of international trade and legal affairs, attends the World Trade Organization General Council as the head of South Korea’s delegation on July 24. (Reuters/Yonhap News). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.


SEOUL, Jul 25, 2019, Hankyoreh. South Korea and Japan exchanged blows over Japan’s tightened export controls on South Korea at the General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO), reported the Hankyoreh.

Alleging that Japan was engaging in “behavior that disrupted world trade for political purposes,” the South Korean delegation proposed that their respective delegations stay in Geneva for two-party talks. But the Japanese delegation rejected this proposal, prompting the interpretation that Japan has no intention of resolving this issue.

South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy reported that Kim Seung-ho, deputy minister of the office of international trade and legal affairs, described how the export controls harmed the international community and strongly called for their removal while attending the WTO General Council as the senior envoy for the South Korean government on July 24.

Kim asserted that Japan’s measures were due to the dispute over the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial occupation must be compensated, warning that such measures would cause severe damage to the multilateral trade order. Observing that Japan was the greatest beneficiary of the free trade order, Kim complained that Japan was going back on its own word just one month after emphasizing free and fair trade while chairing the G20 summit in Osaka.

Kim appealed to WTO member states by emphasizing that Japan’s measures were “dangerous because they could have a knock-on effect on industrial production not only in South Korea but around the world.” While the delegations from the countries were in Geneva to attend the council, Kim suggested they should have a separate meeting of their own.

Japan reiterated its previous position that its measures were part of “security-based trade management.” Junichi Ihara, Japanese ambassador to Geneva, asserted that the export regulations were unrelated to the forced labor issue. “South Korea claims that Japan’s measures go against free trade, but free trade doesn’t mean that sensitive products or technologies with military applications can be traded without any controls,” Ihara countered. The Japanese delegation also rejected the South Korean government’s proposal for bilateral deliberations in Geneva.

None of the other member states observing the back and forth between South Korea and Japan made any comments. Only the Thai ambassador who was chairing the meeting expressed his hope that “the two countries find an amicable solution.” Given the sharp conflict between the two countries, analysts say, other countries were probably reluctant to interject or intervene during the council.

Japan’s rejection of the proposal for bilateral talks with South Korea comes more than 20 days since Japan announced the export controls on July 1. During that time, the two governments haven’t sat down for any deliberations worthy of the name. There was a meeting between section chiefs in charge of strategic materials for the two countries in Tokyo on July 12, but Japan has maintained that it was a briefing, not deliberations.

“Japan’s refusal to engage in dialogue shows that Japan has neither the confidence nor the courage to face its own actions head on. Japan has closed its eyes and ears,” Kim said during a press conference held after the council.

By Choi Ha-yan, staff reporter

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