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Japan industry minister defends export curbs amid S. Korean rebuke

Japanese industry minister Hiroshige Seko speaks to reporters in Tokyo, on July 16, 2019. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese industry minister Hiroshige Seko on Tuesday defended Tokyo's decision to place restrictions on high-tech exports to South Korea, saying South Korean President Moon Jae In's criticism of the measure is "off the mark."

The tougher export rules, which South Korea believes were a retaliatory step in response to its handling of a diplomatic row over wartime labor, come as relations between the neighboring countries have sunk to the lowest point in years.

"From the very beginning, Japan has made clear we are reviewing our export controls with the goal of ensuring national security. We have explained that it is not a countermeasure (to the row)," Seko told reporters.

From July 4, Japanese companies have been required to apply for individual licenses to export three chemicals used to manufacture semiconductors and display panels -- fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and photoresist -- to South Korea. The process, which can take around 90 days, had previously been waived for the country.

On Monday, Moon said that the measure "destroys the framework" of bilateral economic cooperation and called for its immediate scrapping. He also pushed back against the idea that South Korea had let sensitive materials into North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions, calling such allegations a "grave challenge."

Moon made the comments after working-level officials from the two countries held their first meeting on the export restrictions on Friday, only to tell differing stories about what was discussed.

Officials from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry insisted that the meeting was held solely to explain the reasoning for the restrictions and the practical aspects of their implementation, but their South Korean counterparts said they negotiated for the measures to be removed.

"It is regrettable that such untrue claims were made. It's hard to think this won't hurt our relationship of trust going forward," Seko said.

Seoul believes the export curbs, expected to hurt chipmakers in South Korea such as Samsung Electronics Co. and SK Hynix Inc., are in retaliation for its handling of South Korean court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule. Japan maintains that the issue of compensation has been settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement.

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