The Cabinet on Friday formally approved ejecting South Korea from the so-called “white list” countries entitled to receive preferential treatment in trade, likely further aggravating Japan’s relations with the neighbor ahead of a trilateral meeting with the United States set for later the same day.
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Trade minister Hiroshige Seko said during a news conference the measure will go into effect on Aug. 28.
The South Korean government immediately reacted to the decision, calling it “deeply regrettable,” according to Kyodo News.
“Our government will respond to Japan’s unfair decision with a firm stance,” Ko Min-jung, a spokeswoman for South Korea’s presidential office, was quoted as saying.
Ko reportedly said that Seoul had been urging Tokyo to hold consultations to settle the issue diplomatically.
In Bangkok, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said her government is “gravely concerned” by Japan’s decision to remove Seoul from the list.
Speaking at a regional foreign ministerial meeting, part of which was open to the media, Kang condemned the decision as “unilateral and arbitrary,” Kyodo News reported.
The latest measure by Japan is the second phase of its enhancement of controls on exports to South Korea. Japan claims that removing the preferential export status is strictly because of a loss of trust and national security concerns, whereas South Korea argues that Japan’s motive is to damage its economy because of political and historical grievances.
During a public comment period Japan’s government received a total 40,666 responses, more than 95 percent of which were in favor of the plan to remove South Korea from the white list, the trade ministry said.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang in Bangkok in an attempt to ease tensions. The U.S. has reportedly proposed Japan and South Korea sign a “standstill agreement.”
Kono and Kang met Thursday but failed to break a stalemate.
South Korea had been the only Asian nation on Japan’s “white list,” from which no entity has ever been removed. The ejection of South Korea will leave 26 countries — including the United States, France and Argentina — on the list.
Once removed, South Korea will be treated the same way as other countries not on the white list in terms of export controls. Exports to South Korea will require additional screening to ensure they will not be misappropriated for the production of weapons — conventional or those of mass destruction. South Korea has vigorously objected to the proposed new controls.
During a rare live television broadcast of his cabinet meeting, President Moon Jae-in threatened countermeasures.
"We won't be defeated by Japan again," Moon told his cabinet, pointedly invoking South Korea's difficult history with Japan, which colonised the Korean peninsula before World War Two.
He described Japan as a "selfish nuisance" for a decision that threatens to disrupt global supply chains, and aired suspicions over its motive for hobbling a rival economy.
Japan and South Korea have long had rocky relations but they got worse last year following a series of South Korean judicial decisions on wartime forced labor requiring Japanese companies to pay compensation.
Japan has already rolled out stricter export control measures toward South Korea. Starting July 4, Tokyo imposed stricter rules on the export of three chemicals — fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and a group of chemicals known as resists. They are vital to the manufacture of smartphone screens and semiconductors, critical sectors for South Korea.
South Korea has warned the stringent export regulations will hurt the global supply chain, but Japan has dismissed the suggestion. ■
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