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Japan approves removing Seoul from favoured export partner list

Japan says the move is necessary for national security, accusing Seoul of violating export rules, but the measure comes with the countries mired in a long-running dispute over World War Two forced labour in South Korea.

Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono (L) holds a meeting with South Korea's Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-Pyo (R) at his office in foreign ministry in Tokyo on 19 July 2019. Picture: AFP

TOKYO - Japan's government agreed on Friday to remove South Korea from a so-called white list of favoured export partners, defying warnings from Seoul that the move would have "grave consequences" for security ties between the US allies.

Japan says the move is necessary for national security, accusing Seoul of violating export rules, but the measure comes with the countries mired in a long-running dispute over World War Two forced labour in South Korea.

"The government at a cabinet meeting today approved a revision to the export control law... South Korea, the only Asian nation on the list, will be removed," Japan's Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters.

The decision comes despite calls from Washington for the two US allies to set aside their differences.

Seoul said Friday it would respond "sternly" to the "unfair" decision, with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyu-wha calling it "unilateral and arbitrary."

South Korea is now the first country ever to be dropped from Tokyo's list of nations granted minimal constraints on exports of products that could be diverted to military use.

The move, expected to take effect on August 28, means hundreds of products listed as sensitive will be subject to tighter export controls, though experts said the effect would be more symbolic than economic.

It "will only have a limited impact on the South Korean economy," said Hajime Yoshimoto, senior economist at Nomura Securities, in part because Japanese exporters can obtain special permission to ship to non-white-list countries with simplified procedures.

Many major Japanese exporters already have that special permission, according to the trade ministry.

'NOT AN EXPORT EMBARGO'

Tokyo had already tightened rules last month on exports of three products key to South Korea's chip and smartphone industries, raising fears for global supply in the sectors.

"I'd like to make it clear that this is not an export embargo," Seko said Friday.

"We believe stripping South Korea of preferential treatment does not affect the global supply chain or have a negative impact on Japanese companies."

The measure is the latest blow to ties between South Korea and Japan, which have plunged to new lows over a long-running dispute on forced labour during World War II.

A string of South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate forced labour victims has infuriated Japan, which argues the issue was resolved when the two countries normalised ties.

Japanese officials say both the specific export restrictions imposed last month and the white list removal are not a "retaliation" though they have cited a "loss of trust" in ties with Seoul.

They say South Korea has repeatedly violated the rules governing sensitive exports and the moves are necessary for "national security."

The row has alarmed Washington and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to hold trilateral talks with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Taro Kono and Kang, on Friday on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Bangkok.

Kono and Kang talked Thursday, but the meeting appeared frosty, with little sign either side was moving toward a compromise.

TIES 'AT ROCK BOTTOM'

And on Friday Kono defended Japan's move, saying it put South Korea on the same footing as many other ASEAN nations.

"I have not heard any complaints from our ASEAN friends," he said.

"Japan's necessary and legitimate review of its exports control is fully compatible with the free trade regime, including the WTO agreement."

Seoul has said the measure will have "grave consequences" for bilateral ties, with Kang saying that security cooperation would be reviewed.

Hidehiko Mukoyama, senior economist at Japan Research Institute, warned the outlook was grim.

"This is in effect a de facto sanction against South Korea," he told AFP, predicting retaliatory measures from South Korea, where public boycotts of Japanese goods and cancellations of exchanges with Japan have already taken hold.

"For South Korea, it must feel like a pinpoint assault to the heart," he said.

"The bilateral relation is at rock-bottom."

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