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Japan Raises Trade Tensions with South Korea in Dispute

A woman walks past an advertisement with Japanese and South Korean flags at a shop in Shin Okubo area in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
A woman walks past an advertisement with Japanese and South Korean flags at a shop in Shin Okubo area in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.
Japan Raises Trade Tensions with South Korea in Dispute
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Japan plans to remove South Korea from its list of top trading partners in a dispute that may be linked to historical tensions between the sides.

The cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved the plans on Friday.

As a result, Japan would remove South Korea from a list of what are known as “white countries” with preferred trade relations. Such countries enjoy easier trade requirements than other nations.

Starting on August 28, however, Japanese companies must seek government permission to export to South Korea products that could have military uses.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the move “selfish” and warned it could damage the world economy. Earlier, a South Korean presidential spokesperson promised a “resolute” answer to Japan’s move.

Last month, Japan restricted exports of a small number of important, high-technology materials to South Korea. The materials are used to make semiconductors and parts for electronic products that are important to South Korea’s export-fueled economy.

Trade dispute follows South Korean court rulings

Japan’s decision to remove South Korea from the list is widely considered an action to answer rulings by South Korea’s Supreme Court. In October, the court ordered some Japanese companies to pay Koreans who performed forced labor during World War II.

The Japanese government says all such disputes were settled in a 1965 treaty between the two sides. Under the same agreement, the countries established diplomatic ties.

The current trade issues, Japan says, are the result of national security concerns. The country pointed to “improper incidents” involving exports to South Korea. But some Japanese officials have appeared to link the decisions to the historical disputes.

Reactions to a trade dispute could be far-reaching

Japan has the world’s third largest economy, while South Korea has the 11th largest. A trade war between the two could affect not only East Asia, but the world economy. It could threaten the international technology supply chain because South Korea produces about 70 percent of the world’s computer memory chips.

Tobias Harris is a Japan expert at the business advisory group Teneo. He says the effect of the new policy depends on how strongly Japan restricts exports.

Harris said that, when Japan ordered restrictions on trade with South Korea in July, officials suggested it would be difficult for Japanese companies to export the affected products.

With its latest move, Harris said, the Japanese government appears to be putting “Korea at the same level as Japan’s other trading partners in Asia. Presumably, it won’t be a total embargo so as to limit the direct impact on Japanese firms,” he added.

However, the dispute could hurt United States efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The U.S. government has urged both sides to resolve their dispute.

Matthew Goodman is a specialist on Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says it is understandable that Japan is “frustrated” with the issue of World War II forced labor and concerns over exports. But he warned, “This issue is likely to set back the progress Japanese Prime Minister Abe has made over the past few years as an economic leader in the region and the world.”

The Japanese companies named in the South Korean court ruling have yet to pay the money to the forced labor victims. Some of the survivors, who first brought the case, have started legal action to seize some of the companies’ property to pay for a settlement.

Japan says it cannot accept the rulings. But the South Korean government says it cannot overturn them because that would harm the independence of the country’s court system.

I’m Mario Ritter Jr.

VOA News and the Reuters news agency reported this story. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted the reports for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

preferred –adj. the like someone or something more than someone or something else

resolute –adj. very determined

semiconductor –n. a material that can conduct electricity needed in modern electronic devices

supply chain –n. the system of organizations, people and resources needed to mover products and service to the places where they are needed

presumably –adv. what is likely, what one thinks is likely

frustrated –adj. to be upset because of not being able to do or complete something