South Korea downgrades Japan trade status as dispute deepens

The trade dispute between the neighbors erupted in July, when Japan imposed tighter export controls on three chemicals South Korean companies use. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 September 2019

South Korea downgrades Japan trade status as dispute deepens

  • The change comes a week after South Korea initiated a complaint to the World Trade Organization
  • The new measures in effect mean it might take up to 15 days for South Korean companies to gain approvals to export sensitive materials to Japan

SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea on Wednesday dropped Japan from a list of countries receiving fast-track approvals in trade, a reaction to Tokyo’s decision to downgrade Seoul’s trade status amid a tense diplomatic dispute.
South Korea’ trade ministry said Japan’s removal from a 29-member “white list” of nations enjoying minimum trade restrictions went into effect as Seoul rearranged its export control system covering hundreds of sensitive materials that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
The change comes a week after South Korea initiated a complaint to the World Trade Organization over a separate Japanese move to tighten export controls on key chemicals South Korean companies use to manufacture semiconductors and displays.
Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to offer reparations to South Koreans forced into labor during World War II. Tokyo’s measures struck a nerve in South Korea, where many still resent Japan’s brutal colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
According to South Korean trade ministry, the new measures in effect mean it might take up to 15 days for South Korean companies to gain approvals to export sensitive materials to Japan, compared to the five days or less it took under a simpler inspection process provided for favored trade partners.
Lee Ho-hyeon, a South Korean trade ministry official, said the change would affect about 100 local firms that export items such as telecommunications security equipment, semiconductor materials and chemical products to Japan. He said Seoul will work to minimize disruption to South Korean companies.
Japan for decades has enjoyed a huge trade surplus with South Korea, an economy that’s much more dependent on exports. Many major manufacturers heavily rely on parts and materials imported from Japan.
But the dispute is taking a toll. Exports to South Korea from Japan fell 9.4% last month, Japan’s Finance Ministry reported Wednesday.
The trade dispute between the neighbors erupted in July, when Japan imposed tighter export controls on three chemicals South Korean companies use to produce semiconductors and displays for smartphones and TVs, major export items for South Korea. It cited unspecified security concerns over Seoul’s export controls.
A few weeks later, Japan dropped South Korea from its own trade “white list,” triggered a full-blown diplomatic dispute that took relations between the US allies to their worst in decades.
The dispute has spilled over to security issues, with Seoul declaring it plans to terminate a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that symbolized the countries’ three-way security cooperation with the United States in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s growing influence.
Following an angry reaction from Washington, Seoul later said it could reconsider its decision to end the military agreement, which remains in effect until November, if Japan relists South Korea as a favored trade partner.
Seoul announced its plans to downgrade Tokyo’s trade status in August before holding a 20-day period to gather opinions on the decision, during which the Japanese government voiced opposition to the move it described as “arbitrary and retaliatory,” Lee said.
He said Seoul needs to strengthen controls on shipments to a country that’s “hard to cooperate with” and fails to uphold “basic international principles” while managing export controls on sensitive materials.
South Korea previously divided its trade partners into two groups in managing export controls on sensitive materials. Following Wednesday’s change, South Korea now has an in-between bracket where it placed only Japan, which would mostly receive the same treatment in trade as the non-favored nations in what had been the second group.


Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

Updated 16 July 2020

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

  • The circumstances of the hijack are still unclear and the boat has been tracked to Iranian waters

DUBAI: An oil tanker sought by the US over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked on July 5 off the coast of the UAE, a seafarers organization said Wednesday.

Satellite photos showed the vessel in Iranian waters on Tuesday and two of its sailors remained in the Iranian capital.

It wasn’t immediately clear what happened aboard the Dominica-flagged MT Gulf Sky, though its reported hijacking comes after months of tensions between Iran and the US

David Hammond, the CEO of the United Kingdom-based group Human Rights at Sea, said he took a witness statement from the captain of the MT Gulf Sky, confirming the ship had been hijacked.

Hammond said that 26 of the Indian sailors on board had made it back to India, while two remained in Tehran, without elaborating.

“We are delighted to hear that the crew are safe and well, which has been our fundamental concern from the outset,” Hammond told The Associated Press.

Hammond said that he had no other details about the vessel.

TankerTrackers.com, a website tracking the oil trade at sea, said it saw the vessel in satellite photos on Tuesday in Iranian waters off Hormuz Island. 

Hormuz Island, near the port city of Bandar Abbas, is some 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Khorfakkan, a city on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates where the vessel had been for months.

The Emirati government, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment. Iranian state media did not immediately report on the vessel and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against two Iranians, accusing them of trying to launder some $12 million to purchase the tanker, at that time named the MT Nautica, through a series of front companies. 

The vessel then took on Iranian oil from Kharg Island to sell abroad, the US government said.

Court documents allege the scheme involved the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is its elite expeditionary unit, as well as Iran’s national oil and tanker companies. The two men charged, one of whom also has an Iraqi passport, remain at large.

“Because a US bank froze the funds related to the sale of the vessel, the seller never received payment,” the Justice Department said. “As a result, the seller instituted a civil action in the UAE to recover the vessel.”

That civil action was believed to be still pending, raising questions of how the tanker sailed away from the Emirates after being seized by authorities there.

Data from the MT Gulf Sky’s Automatic Identification System tracker shows it had been turned off around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, according to ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements.

Meanwhile, the 28 Indian sailors on board the vessel found themselves stuck on board without pay for months, according to the International Labor Organization. It filed a report saying the vessel and its sailors had been abandoned by its owners since March off Khorfakkan. The ILO did not respond to a request for comment.

As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year, tankers plying the waters of the Mideast became targets, particularly near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Gulf’s narrow mouth through which 20 percent of all oil passes. Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.