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Tense Japan, S. Korean meeting on export curbs highlights mutual distrust

Japanese officials, left, and their South Korean counterparts are seen at a meeting on Japan's new restrictions on high-tech exports to South Korea at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo on July 12, 2019. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- The first working-level meeting between the Japanese and South Korean governments here on July 12 over Tokyo's new restrictions on high-tech exports to Seoul highlighted mutual distrust between the two countries.

Discussions were held in a conference room at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo as officials from both governments faced each other without smiling.

The meeting, which lasted for 5 1/2 hours from 2 p.m., three hours longer than initially scheduled, was held at the request of Seoul.

From July 4, Tokyo stiffened controls on the exports of three chemicals -- fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and photoresist -- used for the production of semiconductors and other goods. The move has sent shockwaves through South Korean society as it could deal a serious blow to its major companies including Samsung Electronics Co.

At the meeting, South Korean officials asked their Japanese counterparts about the basis for Tokyo's beefing up of export controls, while justifying Seoul's own export control system.

In response, Japanese officials pointed out the South Korean government's inadequate manpower situation and screening technique as the reasons for Tokyo's move.

The two sides remained far apart over the issue largely because of Tokyo's deep distrust of Seoul. The three chemicals can be converted for military use and hydrogen fluoride can be used to produce the toxic chemical weapon gas sarin.

In South Korea, more than 150 cases of illegal exports of hydrogen fluoride and other chemicals were exposed from 2015 to this past March.

The South Korean delegation insisted that the figure "proves that we're strictly cracking down on illegal exports. Hydrogen fluoride subject to our crackdowns doesn't include that produced in Japan."

However, Tokyo regards Seoul's measures to prevent illegal exports along its national border as inadequate. "We appreciate South Korea's crackdowns but the country needs to establish a system to prevent such illegal exports," said a senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

Since the two countries have not held trade management consultations since 2017, Japan pointed out that "concerns about security can't be dispelled."

Regarding the meeting as a "briefing session," Japan says that the conference did not constitute "negotiations" with Seoul, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Tokyo is taking the position that there is no room for dialogue on the matter on the grounds that Japan stiffened its export controls "because of inadequacies on the part of Seoul" and Japan's future response will "depend solely on South Korea," according to Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko.

The Japanese government announced on July 12 that it plans to exclude South Korea from a list of countries Tokyo gives preferential treatment in export procedures from mid-August or later.

Under the system, Japan gives such special treatment to 27 countries, which Tokyo recognizes have established adequate export control systems. Since Japan has never excluded any country from the list, Seoul will inevitably react sharply to Tokyo's move.

(Japanese original by Naoya Matsumoto, Business News Department)

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