Japan’s response to the World Trade Organization’s ruling endorsing a South Korean ban on Japanese fishery products raises questions about its sensibility as a responsible member of the international community.
Most of all, Tokyo’s challenge to the ruling, which is final, goes against the norm that both the winner and loser in a bilateral dispute should respect and comply with the judgement of the authoritative international arbitration or settlement body.
International rules and standards are what Japanese politicians and officials often emphasize when Tokyo’s position is unfavorable in cases like historical disputes with neighboring countries.
For instance, the Japanese government argues that the territorial dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo islets in the East Sea be settled by the International Court of Justice.
The Japanese proposal appears to be part of efforts to make an international issue of sovereignty of the islets, which are already controlled by South Korea. Nevertheless, it is self-contradictory to seek settlement by an international body for an issue while refusing to accept the decision of an international body on another matter.
The WTO ruling, made by its Appellate Body and thus irreversible, concerns a South Korean ban on fishery products from eight Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, which were battered by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
The earthquake and consequent tsunami resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which raised alarms about the safety of fishery products from the area. That led the South Korean government to impose a temporary import ban on Japanese food following the nuclear disaster.
In 2013, the Seoul government extended the ban to all fishery products from Fukushima and seven neighboring prefectures. It also toughened requirements for testing the levels of radioactive materials like cesium in food.
The Japanese government filed a complaint with the WTO in 2015, claiming that the South Korean restrictions lack scientific basis and impede free trade.
The WTO’s dispute settlement panel ruled last year that South Korea’s import ban restricts trade excessively. The panel also said the additional inspection requirement was not necessary.
But the Appellate Body reversed the previous ruling, saying the South Korean measures were not overly restrictive and did not unfairly discriminate against Japan. This paved the way for South Korea to maintain the import ban on 28 kinds of fish caught in the seas near the eight Japanese prefectures.
The ruling is a big setback for the Japanese government, which had anticipated the appeals body would uphold the previous ruling. Obviously, the Tokyo government was embarrassed by the decision, as it would deter its efforts to revive the local economies of the Japanese prefectures and restore the country’s reputation as a safe country ahead of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year.
Therefore, Japan, especially its conservative politicians and media, is reacting to the WTO decision sensitively. Relations between South Korea and Japan have already hit rock bottom over historical issues, including World War II military sex slavery and forced labor that victimized South Koreans.
But it is wrong for top Japanese officials like Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to argue that the WTO ruling lacks legitimacy. They even insist the time has come to “reform” the world body.
What Suga and other Japanese leaders should bear in mind is that beyond South Korea, there are 22 other countries and regions that restrict imports of Japanese fishery products.
They do so because it is their sovereign right and duty to protect the safety of their countrymen, not because they simply don’t like Japan or have historical grudges against it.
And no less important is that each member of the international community ought to recognize and respect the decisions and rules of world bodies like the WTO, which constitute the backbone of the international order.