By Yu Toda / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent LONDON — The World Trade Organization upheld a South Korean import ban on Japanese fishery products introduced after the 2011 accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, overturning an earlier decision supporting Japan’s complaint against the ban.
The WTO Appellate Body announced Thursday that it would invalidate a WTO dispute settlement panel’s recommendation that Seoul modify its import restrictions.
The action by the Appellate Body, which is the WTO’s top judicial authority, means that Japan has lost the case.
South Korea imposed a total import ban on fishery products from Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba prefectures in September 2013. Seoul has also demanded that additional inspections be conducted on all Japanese foods if small amounts of radioactive cesium and other substances are detected.
In response, the Japanese government filed a complaint with the WTO in May 2015, claiming that the restrictions lack scientific basis and hinder free trade. Tokyo requested the ban be lifted on 28 species of fish that are popular in South Korea, including sea pineapple, chub mackerel and pollack.
In February 2018, the dispute settlement panel said that South Korea’s import ban unnecessarily restricts trade, and that Seoul must modify its policy. The panel also said the additional inspection requirement was not necessary. South Korea appealed against the panel decision.
The latest ruling by the Appellate Body overturned the panel’s verdict.
The main point of contention in the case was whether conditions in Japan differ from those of other countries exporting to South Korea. While Japan said there was no difference, South Korea disagreed, citing the nuclear accident and other reasons. The Appellate Body apparently judged that Japan had failed to prove that “same conditions” prevail.
The WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism consists of two tiers. The WTO Dispute Settlement Body will next adopt the Appellate Body’s report at a meeting to be held within 30 days, and the ruling will be finalized. If Japan had won the case, South Korea would in principle have been required to lift its ban within 15 months. As Japan lost the case, however, South Korea will likely maintain its import ban for the time being.
Though eight years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, 23 countries and regions, including China and Taiwan, still enforce restrictions on Japanese food imports.
Tokyo had planned to step up its efforts to convince countries and regions to ease such restrictions had it won the case. However, the government must now consider new strategies.
“We did not expect this outcome. We will gather information quickly and discuss future measures,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun early Friday.
Seoul welcomes ruling
The South Korean government released a statement Friday praising the WTO’s verdict.
Seoul said that the government formed a team tasked with handling the case involving relevant ministries and agencies.
The South Korean government insisted it would maintain its current import ban on fishery products from eight Japanese prefectures based on the ruling.
On Friday morning, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also met South Korean Ambassador to Japan Lee Su-hoon, who visited the ministry to report his departure from his post, telling Lee that “Japan would like to urge South Korea to lift the import ban through future bilateral talks.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Friday: “Food from Japan is scientifically safe. The latest ruling maintained the factual findings from the first trial [the WTO dispute settlement panel] that our food has adequately met South Korea’s safety standards. It’s not appropriate to say our country lost the case.”
Suga also said Japan would continue urging South Korea and other countries that restrict Japanese foods imports to remove or relax their measures.