Photo/IllutrationA fisherman hauls in "hoya" (sea squirts) that had been raised for four years in waters off Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. (Susumu Okamoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion

A World Trade Organization appeals panel sided with South Korea’s continued ban on Japanese seafood following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, shocking officials in Tokyo seeking to end such “discrimination” against Japanese products.

The panel accepted Seoul’s argument that peculiar circumstances surrounding Japanese products after the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant allowed the South Korean government to set stricter import restrictions.

The judgment overturned a WTO dispute panel’s ruling in February 2018 that said South Korea’s ban on seafood from eight prefectures in eastern Japan amounted to arbitrary and inappropriate discrimination against Japanese products.

The latest ruling means South Korea is no longer obligated to revise its trade practices concerning imports of Japanese seafood.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at his April 12 news conference that the panel’s decision was “extremely regrettable,” but he added that it did not constitute a “defeat” for Japan.

He noted that the appeals panel maintained the finding of the dispute panel that Japanese products clearly meet safety standards set by South Korea.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned South Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon to the Foreign Ministry and informed him that Tokyo would continue asking Seoul to remove its import ban in future discussions.

Farm ministry officials said 23 nations continue to impose import bans on Japanese food products over fears of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.

"We will continue to inform those nations that we have established a structure of not allowing the distribution of any food products that do not meet the safety standards and will continue to conduct thorough monitoring of those products as one way of trying to persuade them to eliminate or relax their current prohibitions,” Takamori Yoshikawa, the agriculture minister, said at his news conference on April 12.

Ministry officials had hoped to use a favorable ruling at the WTO appeals panel as ammunition to lobby those nations to remove their bans. Now, they may need a new strategy to deal with the restrictions overseas.

Many government officials were optimistic that the dispute panel’s initial ruling would be upheld.

At the April 12 Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee session, Hajime Sasaki of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said Japan may have lowered its guard on the assumption that it was certain to win in the appeals panel.

(Hirobumi Ohinata contributed to this article.)