SKorea to file WTO complaint over Japan's export curbs

The move is the latest escalation of two countries' bitter trade row stemming from a long-running dispute

Photo: EPA South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee

South Korea said Wednesday it will file a complaint to the World Trade Organisation over Japan's "politically motivated" export restrictions, upping the ante in an intensifying dispute with the neighbour.

Seoul and Tokyo have been embroiled in the trade and diplomatic spat since Tokyo tightened export controls in early July on three chemicals essential to making memory chips and high-spec displays, key products of South Korean companies such as Samsung and LG. The ongoing dispute has also seen the two neighbours remove each other from their "white lists" of trusted trading partners and prompted South Korea not to renew a military intelligence sharing pact.

All these restrictions followed a series of South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese firms to pay for forced labour during its colonial rule over the Korean peninsula during World War II.

"Japan's export curbs on three items are driven by political motivations linked to a Supreme Court ruling over the issue of forced labour," said Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee at a press conference on Wednesday.

"Targeting South Korea is … in violation of WTO's principles banning discriminatory practise," Yoo also added, continuing that Seoul will request a bilateral consultation at the WTO as a first step to resolve the issue.

With South Korea's role as a main supplier for memory chips and displays, she said, the curbs have caused "significant uncertainty" in the global economy. 

Tokyo says the move was made necessary by a "loss of trust" in relations with Seoul, but also accuses South Korea of improperly handling exports of sensitive materials from Japan. But Seoul maintains it is a retaliatory move in response to historical disputes.

South Korea and Japan are both US allies, democracies and market economies faced with an overbearing China and nuclear-armed North Korea. But relations between Tokyo, Beijing, and both Koreas continue to be heavily affected by Japan's expansionism in the first half of the 20th century, including its colonisation of the peninsula.

Tokyo maintains that all issues of wartime compensation were settled under the 1965 treaty that re-established diplomatic ties, including a package of about $800m in grants and cheap loans for the former colony. Seoul however rebukes that point and contends the 1965 deal did not absolve individuals' rights to seek reparations.

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