Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to a question at his daily news conference. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Government officials are being accused of misinterpreting a World Trade Organization report on South Korea's ban on Japanese seafood imports to suggest that such products were safe, despite no mention of the term.

A WTO appeals panel ruled on April 11 that South Korea could maintain a ban it introduced against Japanese seafood following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

However, at a news conference the next day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the results did not represent a defeat for Japan, explaining that because the panel did not touch on the safety of Japanese food products, the initial panel's ruling that such products were scientifically safe and sufficiently below the safety standards set by South Korea was maintained.

However, a number of legal experts have raised doubts about that interpretation, as the initial dispute panel's ruling did not contain any wording about the scientific safety of Japanese food products.

Also, while the first dispute panel concluded that Japanese seafood had levels of radioactive substances below the safety standards set by South Korea, the appeals body threw out the conclusion on grounds that the discussions were insufficient.

Officials in charge of the matter at the Foreign Ministry and farm ministry acknowledged that the dispute panel ruling conclusion was rephrased to include the term scientific safety. However, the panel only said that Japanese food products were being shipped out under stricter standards than those used by an international organization.

Junji Nakagawa, an international economic law professor at Chuo Gakuin University who is knowledgeable about WTO dispute settlements, said the government's explanation is unacceptable, as the conclusion that Japan's standards were stricter than those of an international organization is not synonymous with "scientifically safe."

Tsuyoshi Kawase, a Sophia University law professor, also criticized the government's interpretation that Japanese food products were sufficiently below South Korean safety standards.

He brought up the misinterpretation in a report released April 16 by the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, a think tank with close ties to the economy ministry, and for which Kawase also serves as a researcher.

The following day, Shingo Yamagami, director-general of the Economic Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry, partially revised the government interpretation when he gave a presentation to ruling Liberal Democratic Party members, saying that Japanese food products were sufficiently below "numerical safety standards" set by South Korea.

A farm ministry official said more appropriate wording was chosen after a careful reading of the WTO panel report.

While Kawase said the WTO ruling did not deny the safety of Japanese food products, he added that the government should look objectively at the facts and consider measures for dealing with the fact that 23 nations and regions continue to impose import bans on Japanese food products out of concern for their safety.