A World Trade Organization appeals panel has thwarted Japan’s quest to remove South Korea’s ban on Japanese seafood that was imposed following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In its report, the WTO Appellate Body supported Seoul’s case for keeping its door closed to seafood imports from eight prefectures in eastern Japan including areas affected by the devastating accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The decision overturned the WTO Dispute Settlement Body’s ruling in February 2018 that said South Korea’s measure amounted to arbitrary and inappropriate discrimination against Japanese products. The lower panel proclaimed the import ban was a violation of the WTO rules.

The appeals panel nullified the lower panel ruling on grounds of insufficient deliberations.

The appellate decision represents the final ruling on the case under the WTO’s two-stage dispute settlement system, leaving Japan with no other means to challenge South Korea’s measure. It is an extremely regrettable decision.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga claimed the decision did not constitute a “defeat” for Japan, pointing out that the appeals panel supported part of Japan’s argument.

But the Japanese government should accept the outcome of the WTO dispute settlement process, which rejected the core of its argument. Tokyo sought the verdict by the WTO dispute settlement system with an eye on taking retaliatory measures.

The Appellate Body took no exception to the dispute settlement panel’s endorsement of the safety of Japanese seafood.

But the appeals ruling underscored differences among individuals in perceptions about safety and acceptability concerning radioactive materials.

Countries make their own decisions concerning the issue from the viewpoint of how to protect the safety of their people while respecting international rules.

The appeals panel has effectively granted individual countries relatively wide discretion in making such decisions.

The Japanese government has been closely monitoring radiation levels of seafood from Fukushima Prefecture. When the level of even one radioactive substance is found to be higher than the safety standards, the government restricts shipments and increases the number and frequency of radiation surveys.

To alleviate anxiety among consumers at home and abroad about the safety of seafood from Fukushima and other prefectures in the region, the government should step up its efforts to publicize more detailed information about these measures and provide objective data.

The situation cannot be improved by simply saying that the WTO has scientifically endorsed the safety of Japanese food.

The South Korean government has announced its intention to maintain its ban on Japanese seafood.

Meanwhile, exchanges between citizens of the two countries through daily human interactions are growing. It is vital to create a diplomatic environment that promotes level-headed dialogue between the two neighboring countries.

To do so, the Japanese government should offer convincing, well-thought-out explanations to people worried about the safety of Japanese food. It needs to handle the matter carefully so that it will not be influenced by other bilateral political issues.

Sales of many marine product-processing companies in disaster-affected areas are still well below their levels before the earthquake and tsunami.

Rebuilding the battered local agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries requires expansion of the market both at home and abroad.

The number of countries and areas that still restrict food imports from Japan has fallen to 23, down substantially from the 54 immediately after the nuclear accident.

It is the role of the government to persuade these countries to ease and scrap their import curbs on Japanese food.

The Appellate Body’s verdict says nothing about whether South Korea’s import ban violates the WTO rules while overturning the lower panel’s ruling. It is a half-baked ruling that has raised serious questions about the reliability of the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 16