In August, Japan released treated radioactive water into the ocean from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. China responded immediately with a blanket ban on all imports of Japanese seafood.
The reverberations from this ban will likely be felt later this month, when the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan, and China are expected to convene in Seoul. The host government will be forced to navigate the choppy waters where geopolitics and domestic politics converge.
In this context, South Korea now faces the difficult task of reconciling its stance on Fukushima seafood with its past trade dispute with Japan.
Japan’s Fukushima water release was supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.S., but it was met with public opposition in South Korea, where domestic discontent posed a considerable political risk for President Yoon Seok-yul, who had promised to improve relations with Japan.
The water release presented a particularly difficult decision for Yoon ahead of the general election in April, as the release was especially expected to aggravate voters in South Korea’s southeastern region. These voters, who have traditionally been strong supporters of his conservative party, reside close to the ocean and to Japan, and are therefore most susceptible to the potential consequences of the release.
Meanwhile, China’s complete import ban caused Japanese seafood exports to China to decline 68 percent in August 2023 as compared to the value in August 2022. Japan, in turn, declared its intention to challenge Beijing’s import ban at the World Trade Organization.
Unsurprisingly, Russia followed China’s lead in October, suspending Japanese seafood imports entirely and echoing Beijing’s argument that it had taken a “precautionary measure” which would remain in place until the safety of Japanese seafood products is established.
It is against this backdrop that Seoul finds itself in choppy waters. Since September 2013, following Tokyo’s acknowledgment of radioactive water leakage from a Fukushima plant storage tank, South Korea has maintained import restrictions, including a total ban on seafood products from eight Japanese prefectures adjacent to Fukushima. In response, Tokyo brought the matter to the WTO against Seoul in 2015, securing an initial victory before a dispute settlement panel in 2018. Yet, this victory was overturned by the WTO Appellate Body the following year, and South Korea’s ban remains in place to this day. This would seem to align Seoul’s position with those of Beijing and Moscow.
Unfortunately, however, that is a precarious place for Seoul to be, given the commonality of strategic concerns about China and Russia that South Korea shares with the U.S. and Japan, articulated at the Camp David Summit. Moreover, the logic of Seoul’s Fukushima seafood ban appears to conflict with its endorsement of the IAEA findings that the discharge poses a negligible impact on people and the environment.
Although relations between Seoul and Tokyo have improved, it is crucial to recognize that the unresolved historical and territorial disputes between the two countries continue to fester and could still strain their fragile rapprochement. Technically, Japan can bring South Korea back to the WTO at any point, armed with the IAEA report and South Korea’s own approval of the Fukushima water release. That would make it extremely difficult for Seoul to maintain its ban.
Moreover, if Japan indeed proceeds with legal action against China at the WTO, this could exert substantial pressure on South Korea to reevaluate its own restrictions on Fukushima seafood imports.
Adding to the complexity, the Trade Ministers of the Group of Seven (G7), currently under Japan’s leadership, released a statement in late October, urging the “immediate repeal” of import curbs on Japanese food products. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. announced that its military would initiate substantial purchases of Japanese seafood in response to China’s ban on such products. All these developments collectively put added pressure on Seoul, which is likely to be compelled to justify, modify, or terminate its seafood ban.
Yoon’s administration has asserted that South Korea’s ban on Fukushima seafood will remain intact. But concerns are growing about its strategic readiness to respond effectively to the evolving geopolitical dynamics surrounding the Fukushima spat and the legal defenses for keeping the ban.
South Korea may need to find a way to distinguish its more targeted ban, limited to seafood from near Fukushima, from the broader Chinese and Russian bans, in order to avoid appearing hypocritical. Otherwise, it could face mounting pressure to reconsider, and potentially lift its ban, aligning itself more closely with like-minded countries in an era of intensifying geostrategic rivalry.
Haeyoon Kim is senior program officer at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
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