Business

Tokyo and Seoul give dueling accounts of talks amid export row

Kyodo, Staff Report

South Korean officials said Saturday they asked Japan to lift strict controls on high-tech exports during a meeting held on Friday, rejecting claims by Tokyo that no such demand was made.

The dispute over Japan’s recent move to end preferential treatment for materials used to produce semiconductors and display panels comes as diplomatic ties sink to their lowest point in years over a disagreement on wartime labor.

“I said the restrictions are regrettable. In other words, I asked for them to be removed,” a South Korean official who took part in the meeting at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo told reporters.

A Japanese official had said after the working-level talks that the South Koreans did not make such a request and only inquired about the reasoning behind the moves and the practical aspects of their implementation.

“We are very surprised (by the reactions),” Jun Iwamatsu, director of the trade control policy division at the trade ministry, said during a hastily arranged news conference at the ministry on Saturday after the South Korean official’s comments were reported.

Iwamatsu said Japan formally complained to South Korea about the official’s comment through its embassy in Tokyo.

Starting July 4, Japanese firms must apply for individual licenses to export three chemicals — fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and photoresist — to South Korea. The process, which can take around 90 days, had previously been waived for the country.

Japan also plans to take South Korea off a “white list” of nations that can relatively easily buy products divertible for military use.

The Korean official said he pushed back against Japan’s insistence the steps are in the interest of national security and do not violate World Trade Organization rules.

“I stated quite firmly that South Korea cannot understand nor accept nor agree” with the tighter controls, he said.

Before departing from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, the official said he and his colleague asked to negotiate the removal of the steps but the Japanese refused. The meeting began with a 30-minute explanation by Japan and was followed by over four hours of pushback from South Korea, he said.

Iwamatsu said Saturday that at the start of Friday’s meeting, the South Korean side raised the issue of the step’s effects on global supply chains. The Japanese side said the meeting was not the appropriate place to discuss the matter.

Seoul believes Tokyo’s moves, expected to hurt chipmakers like Samsung Electronics Co. and SK Hynix Inc., are retaliation for its handling of Korean court decisions ordering Japanese firms to compensate victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.