TOKYO: Japan's Cabinet on Friday (Aug 2) approved a plan to remove South Korea from a list of countries that enjoy minimum export controls, a move likely to escalate tensions fuelled by a dispute over compensation for wartime forced labourers.
The decision to drop South Korea from the "white list", a step that has been protested fiercely by Seoul, comes a month after Japan tightened curbs on exports to South Korea of three high-tech materials needed to make memory chips and display panels.
"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.
Seoul said Friday it would respond "sternly" to the "unfair" decision, with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyu-wha calling it "unilateral and arbitrary."
READ: South Korea warns Japan to drop 'white list' trade threat
Japan has said the measures are based on national security concerns, citing South Korea's insufficient export controls as well as the erosion of trust after South Korean court rulings ordered Japanese firms compensate wartime forced labourers.
Japan says the issue of compensation was settled by a 1965 treaty that normalised ties between Tokyo and Seoul.
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."
South Korea is now the first country ever to be dropped from Japan's so-called "white" list of nations granted minimal constraints on exports of products that could be diverted to military use.
It 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.
"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 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."