South Korea's senior trade official Yoo Myung-hee speaks during a briefing at a government complex in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. South Korea is filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Japan's tightened export controls on key materials South Korean companies use to make computer chips and displays, accusing Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate over political rows. (Kim Seung-doo/Yonhap via AP)

South Korea initiating WTO complaint over Japan trade curbs

September 10, 2019 - 9:01 pm

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea said it will initiate a complaint Wednesday to the World Trade Organization over Japan's tightened export controls on key materials South Korean companies use to make computer chips and displays

Seoul accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate over political rows. It will formally request bilateral consultations with Japan on Wednesday as the first step in the WTO dispute settlement process, said Yoo Myung-hee, a senior official at South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

Japan in July imposed tighter export controls on three chemicals South Korean companies use to produce semiconductors and displays for smartphones and TVs, citing unspecified security concerns over South Korea's export controls on sensitive materials that could be used for military purposes.

The measures, which weeks later were followed by Japan's move to exclude South Korea from its "white list" of countries with fast-track trade status, triggered a full-blown diplomatic row that saw relations sink to a low unseen in decades

South Korea says Japan's trade measures threaten its export-dependent economy, where many manufacturers rely on materials and parts imported from Japan. It claims Tokyo is retaliating over South Korean court rulings that called for Japanese companies to offer reparations to aging South Korean plaintiffs over World War II forced labor.

"Japan's export restriction on the three materials were based on political motivation related to rulings by our Supreme Court on forced labor ... It was a discriminatory measure that directly targets only our country," Yoo said in a news conference.

Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, told reporters in Tokyo he thought hardly any WTO member countries were sympathetic to South Korea's position. "Regardless, it is clear that our action is consistent with the WTO," he said. Seko added that Tokyo would study the demands and respond according to the proper WTO procedures.

If Japan accepts South Korea's request, the countries must hold consultations for a minimum 60 days. If Japan refuses the consultations or if the talks fail, South Korea could request a WTO panel ruling on the dispute. The process usually takes about 15 months but may also last years, said Jeong Hae-seong, a South Korean trade ministry official.

Yoo said the country is also considering whether to pursue WTO action over Japan's move to delist South Korea as a preferential trade partner.

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