A nasty diplomatic dispute between South Korea and Japan grew even more intense on Thursday as a South Korean lawmaker accused the Japanese of shipping banned materials to North Korea on 30 different occasions over the past 20 years, in some cases shipping items that were useful in the production of nuclear weapons.
Japan enraged South Korea last week by tacitly accusing Seoul of violating sanctions against North Korea.
Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the opposition Bareunmirae Party (BMP) on Thursday threw accusations from Tokyo right back in its face by claiming data from Japan’s Center for Information on Security Trade Control (CISTEC) proved Japan repeatedly shipped materials useful in nuclear and chemical weapons production to North Korea between 1996 and 2013.
Ha’s allegations were summarized by the Korea Times on Friday:
The data showed that a North Korean ship was found containing 50 kilograms of sodium fluoride in Osaka in January 1996 and another was found with 50 kilograms of hydrofluoric acid at Kobe in February the same year. He stated that hydrogen fluoride can also be used to create sarin gas, which has been used in terrorist attacks in the past.
“Hydrofluoric acid and sodium fluoride are under export control as they can be used to kill people. It is an illegal export using North Korean ships which were supposed to send rice to the North for urgent humanitarian aid,” Ha said.
The data showed that a lyophilizer and a tanker were also illegally sent to North Korea in 2002 and 2008, respectively. It was also revealed that Japanese companies illegally sent two measuring machines to Malaysia in October and November 2001 through Singapore. One of the machines was later found at a nuclear facility in Libya.
“Japan is making the preposterous claim that South Korea may have illegally shipped hydrogen fluoride to North Korea which can be used in the production of nuclear weapons. But I found Japanese data showing Japan has illegally exported hydrogen fluoride to North Korea,” Ha declared.
The South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy also chastised Japan for making “groundless allegations that might tarnish the reputation of the South’s export control systems” and challenged the Japanese to produce hard evidence to prove hydrogen fluoride passed through South Korea on its way to the North. The ministry said an “emergency inspection” of companies that purchase chemicals from Japan found no evidence of illegal shipments to North Korea.
South Korean national security official Kim You-geun on Friday called for a thorough international investigation of Japan’s allegations, which he described as “irresponsible,” and challenged Japan to accept a similar investigation of its own sanctions compliance.
“If the result of the investigation reveals that our government did something wrong, our government will apologize for it and immediately apply measures to correct it,” Kim promised.
“If the result shows that our government has done nothing wrong, the Japanese government should not only apologize but also immediately withdraw the export restrictions that have the characteristics of a retaliation. There also should be a thorough investigation on Japanese violations,” he added.
The battle over smuggling to North Korea began last week when Japanese officials infuriated South Korea by placing tighter export controls on certain high-tech materials to South Korean companies. Among the affected exports were chemicals needed by South Korean corporations to manufacture semiconductors and video displays. Some of those corporations, including electronics giant Samsung, count major U.S. companies like Apple among their customers.
Japanese officials rather strongly hinted the tighter controls were imposed because South Korea had allowed sanctioned materials to be shipped to North Korea and was no longer a trustworthy trading partner.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in accused the Japanese of imposing the export controls for “political purposes” and said they were jeopardizing “the friendship and security cooperation between the two countries.” He warned the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to stop waking down a “dead-end street.”
Indignant South Korean officials accused the Japanese of betraying their obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO), an accusation the Japanese denied. The South Koreans expressed concerns that even more aggressive export controls might be applied against them, an accusation the Japanese did not work particularly hard to deny.
A meeting between export officials from both countries in Tokyo on Friday reportedly made no headway in resolving the dispute. South Korean officials who attended the meeting criticized their Japanese counterparts for offering only vague justifications for the tighter export controls. They also complained of receiving a rude and “cold” reception from their Japanese hosts, who held the meeting in a room that resembled a “garage.”
Abe’s administration has spoken of a generally deteriorating trade and national security relationship with Moon’s administration, but most outside observers believe this is really all about South Korea refusing to put the issue of forced labor and sexual slavery demanded by the Empire of Japan during World War II to rest. This would be the root “political purpose” alluded to by South Korean President Moon in his broadside against Tokyo.
In short, Japan maintains the issues of forced labor and “comfort women” were settled by a 1965 treaty with South Korea and subsequent acts of restitution made by Japan, while the South Koreans argue Japan has not done enough to resolve the lingering pain of its 1910-1945 occupation and has acted callously towards elderly survivors and their families.
The long-simmering dispute erupted last year when South Korean courts ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to conscripted laborers, a decision Japan viewed as a violation of the 1965 treaty and attendant international law.
The Japanese see Moon’s administration as inconsistent on the issue and believe compromise proposals have been deliberately sabotaged for political reasons. The South Koreans think Abe’s administration is either unwilling or politically unable to reach a meaningful compromise and suspect Japan wants to run out the clock until the last of the aging occupations victims die off.
Many modern South Koreans think their government at the time was short-sighted or greedy for signing the 1965 treaty and accepting a relatively small compensation payment for wartime abuses. Some Japanese are, in turn, irritated that South Korea used the funds from the 1965 settlement to jump-start its rapid growth into an industrial powerhouse and formidable competitor, but now wishes to extract even more reparations.
Bloomberg News criticized U.S. President Donald Trump last week for not intervening as the decades-long feud between Seoul and Tokyo heated up from verbal sniping to an economic war that could threaten global supply chains, noting that Trump visited both cities recently but said nothing in public to reduce growing hostility between the two vital U.S. allies.
CBC News, on the other hand, quoted analysts who feel American involvement at this point could make things worse and argue the issue must be resolved bilaterally by Japan and South Korea. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell is currently in Japan assessing the situation and will visit South Korea next week, but has not made a public comment about the trade dispute.
The Moon administration is actively campaigning to get the U.S. involved as a mediator. President Moon’s Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Hyun-chong paid a visit to Washington on Wednesday for that purpose, telling reporters the dispute with Japan was one of several issues he intended to discuss with the White House and Congress.