Japan approves bill removing S Korea from list of trusted trading partners

Japan’s Cabinet approved a proposal Friday to remove South Korea from a list of trusted trading partners in a move seen as additional economic retaliation in a row over wartime forced labour, Yonhap news agency reported.

The decision, which was widely expected, follows Tokyo’s first restriction, imposed on July 4, that applies a tougher approval process for exports to South Korea of three key chemicals used for semiconductor and display production.

The new measure, which will take effect 21 days after its promulgation, is expected to deal yet another heavy blow to already frayed relations between the two countries.

The row began after South Korea’s Supreme Court rulings last year that Japanese firms should compensate forced labour victims. Japan has vehemently protested the decisions, arguing all reparation issues stemming from its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea were settled under a 1965 accord that normalised bilateral ties.

Japan claims the export curbs are unrelated to the forced labour issue but few believe the claim.

Friday’s decision, if put into effect around the end of this month, will strike South Korea off the whitelist of countries granted simplified procedures for purchasing sensitive goods that can be diverted for military use.

Under the measure, Japanese exporters will need individual authorisation, rather than fast-track approval, for exports of around 1,120 dual-use items to South Korea. It is feared it would cause significant delays and disruptions to imports from Japan.

Although it is not yet clear which items will be most affected by Seoul’s removal from the list, analysts speculate that sectors with strong growth potential, including lithium-ion batteries, carbon fiber and engineering equipment, could be the targets of Japan’s stringent export controls.

But it could hit Japanese companies too, as they may lose revenue from Korean buyers.

In a last-minute effort to defuse the row, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha held talks with her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, in Bangkok on Friday on the sidelines of a regional security forum, but the two sides failed to narrow their differences.

After the talks, Kang warned that Seoul could reconsider its participation in a bilateral military intelligence-sharing accord with Japan if Tokyo presses ahead with removing South Korea from the list.

Officials in Seoul have hinted that the country could consider terminating the 2016 General Security of Military Information Agreement aimed at sharing intelligence to better cope with threats from North Korea.

The pact is supposed to be renewed automatically every year, but can be terminated if either side informs the other of its intention to end it.