South Korea won in a trade dispute over its import bans on Japanese seafood. Seoul’s import bans on Japanese fishery products caught from eight prefectures near Fukushima will continue to be in place as a result. This ruling by the World Trade Organization is considered unprecedented since this is the first time that a first ruling on a Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement dispute was overturned in the Appellate Court at the WTO. South Korea practically suffered a complete defeat when a dispute settlement panel at the WTO sided with Japan last year.
The Appellate Court of the WTO overturned a ruling by a lower panel on four disputed pointsㅡdiscrimination, trade restriction, transparency, and inspection processㅡraised by Japan, except for Seoul’s unclear publication of information to Tokyo over its import ban measures, and ruled in favor of South Korea saying that Seoul’s import bans are in accordance with WTO rules. South Korea is the only country Japan filed a WTO complaint against in 2015 out of 54 that imposed import bans on Japanese seafood. It might have been Japan’s strategy to choose South Korea as its target since South Korea has the toughest import ban among 54 countries and fifth-largest import volume of Japanese fishery products following Hong Kong and China.
The WTO’s unexpected ruling shocked Japan. Japan’s strategy was to win the WTO dispute over South Korea and use the precedent to push other countries to relax their regulations on Japanese fishery imports. The plan eventually did not pull through. Japan has been seeking to revitalize the economy of the areas near Fukushima, stressing the safety of the areas and their agricultural and fisheries products. It filed a complaint at the WTO as part of its efforts to revive the regional economy only to hurt the export of regional agricultural and fisheries products.
The WTO ruling is meaningful in that it has upheld Korean people’s right to consume safe food. Taking aggressive action against Japan’s complaint appears to have played an important role in overturning a ruling by a lower panel last year. Taking this opportunity, South Korea should put an all-out effort in preparing materials to verify the problem pointed out by the WTO. It should also be open to ease regulations on the regions or items whose safety has been proven through verification. The number of countries that put an import ban on Japanese seafood has been reduced to 24. South Korea should do its best to protect its people’s right to health but be cautious not to be embroiled in a dispute over excessive regulation.