Japan’s dispute with South Korea over its import restrictions on Japanese seafood imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster is now going to the World Trade Organization.
Following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, South Korea banned imports of some marine products caught in waters off Fukushima and seven other prefectures, mainly areas along the Pacific coast between Aomori and Chiba prefectures. Then in autumn 2013, Seoul expanded the scope of the ban to include all marine products from these prefectures.
The Japanese government responded to the move by criticizing the measure for “lacking a scientific basis.”
Tokyo has been demanding that the measure be withdrawn while cooperating with Seoul’s investigations. But the two countries have failed to resolve their disagreements, and Japan has asked the WTO to set up a dispute-settlement panel comprising experts from third countries to rule over South Korea’s import ban.
More than a dozen countries and areas have barred imports of all or part of Japanese-made foods, but the government has singled out South Korea because the country has expanded its restrictions.
The WTO tends to be regarded as dysfunctional because of the lack of progress in the global trade-liberalizing talks under its auspices. But the world trade watchdog has at least been performing its dispute-settling functions.
Japan has been making active use of the WTO’s ability to settle trade disputes.
Over the past several years, Tokyo has filed complaints with the WTO over China’s restrictions on exports of rare earth minerals and Ukraine’s emergency restrictions on automobile imports, for instance. These actions have produced certain positive results for Japan.
Japan’s diplomatic relations with South Korea remain strained over some long-standing territorial and history-related rows. But both countries should not allow these problems to affect the ways they deal with economic issues like trade disputes.
Tokyo and Seoul need to continue talks to seek an early solution to the dispute even while the WTO’s panel is hearing the case.
Four-and-a-half years after the accident, coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture, where the disaster-stricken nuclear power plant is located, are still subject to restrictions on shipments of certain kinds of fish. Even for the fishes not covered, fishermen in these areas are allowed to catch and sell them only on a “trial basis.”
A system has been established to ensure that farm, forestry and fishery products made in areas directly affected by the disaster as well as surrounding regions are shipped only after they have passed the safety standards in radiation tests. But consumers have shown a tendency to avoid all food products from these areas.
In cases of fishery products, only small-scale fishing operations and limited sales of products have been conducted to gauge the reactions from consumers.
The South Korean government says it has expanded the import curbs in response to leaks of radiation-contaminated water from the Fukushima plant.
With the South Korean public deeply worried about food contaminated with radioactive materials, the step was aimed at preventing confusion among consumers in the country, according to Seoul.
The scope of the import restrictions and the means involved may be open to dispute. It should be noted, however, that in both South Korea and Japan, food safety from a scientific viewpoint doesn’t necessarily reassure consumers.
The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has been plagued by leaks of polluted water. Local fishermen have lodged protests every time such an incident occurs.
It must not be forgotten that every leak of contaminated water makes consumers even more unwilling to put their faith in the safety of products from the areas.
The only way to restore the public’s trust in the safety of food is to ensure there will be no more leaks of contaminated water nor any exacerbation of the nuclear accident. The food trade dispute with South Korea should serve as a reminder of the absolute need to achieve these most basic nuclear safety goals.
Source: Asahi Shimbun