S Korea finance minister warns of countermeasures against Japan

South Korea threatens to counter Japan's restrictions on materials used in mobile phones as wartime dispute simmers.

    Japan says it would tighten curbs on exports of materials used in mobile phones to South Korea amid a growing dispute over wartime forced labour [File: Steve Marcus/Reuters]
    Japan says it would tighten curbs on exports of materials used in mobile phones to South Korea amid a growing dispute over wartime forced labour [File: Steve Marcus/Reuters]

    South Korea's economic policy chief warned on Thursday of direct countermeasures against Japan if it maintains restrictions on exports of hi-tech materials to South Korean companies for a long time.

    "Implementing corresponding measures against Japan cannot be ruled out because it will take a long time for the World Trade Organization to produce a conclusion," South Korean Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said on the radio.

    Japan has said it would tighten curbs on exports of three materials used in smartphone displays and chips to South Korea amid a growing dispute over wartime forced labour. South Korea has so far sought to settle the issue through the World Trade Organization.

    "If the Japanese threat is materialized, it will be a big blow to the industry, but not only to the Korean industry, it will be a disruption of the global value chain," Byungtae Lee, professor of information systems in the College of Business at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, told Al Jazeera.

    South Korea has long been angered by what it sees as Japan's failure to take responsibility for atrocities committed during World War II. Japan maintains that the issue was settled when the two countries normalised diplomatic relations in 1965.

    Under the 1965 treaty, South Korea received a package of $300m in economic aid and $500m in loans from Japan in exchange for Seoul considering all pre-treaty compensation issues settled.

    The money was largely spent to rebuild its infrastructure and economy ravaged by the 1950-1953 Korean War, but former forced labourers began to demand compensation in the 1990s.

    Courts in South Korea recently ruled in favour of former workers used as slave labour by Japanese companies, ordering them to pay compensation.

    Japan denies its moves are in retaliation for those court decisions.

    "This is not a countermeasure but a review of operations from the point of view of appropriately implementing export controls for national security reasons," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters earlier this week.

    'The Trumpian playbook'

    Al Jazeera's Rob McBride in Seoul says the latest chapter of this dispute comes just days after Japan hosted the G20 summit of world leaders, meant to foster good neighbourly relations and promote free trade.

    "If citing national security as a reason for imposing trade controls sounds familiar, that's because it is. The administration of US President Donald Trump has often used the same reason in its trade disputes with neighbouring countries. And many people here believe Japan is resorting to tactics taken straight from the Trumpian playbook," says McBride.

    South Korea and Japan share a bitter history that includes the 1910-1945 Japanese colonisation of the Korean Peninsula, the forced mobilisation of labour at Japanese companies and the use of comfort women, Japan's euphemism for girls and women, many of them Korean, forced to work in its wartime brothels.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies