A South Korean man stands next to a sign with a picture of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a rally to denounce Japan's trade restrictions on South Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 8, 2019.
A South Korean man stands next to a sign with a picture of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a rally to denounce Japan's trade restrictions on South Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 8, 2019.

TOKYO - Japan said Thursday it has granted the first permit for a South Korea-bound shipment of chemicals for use in high-tech materials under Tokyo’s new export requirement that has increased tensions with Seoul.

Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko made a rare announcement of such approval, saying that officials determined the transaction raised no security concerns. The move is apparently meant to calm South Korean anger over Tokyo’s export curbs and show there is no trade ban in place.

Trade controls

Japan imposed stricter controls on three key materials — fluorinated polyimides, photo resists and hydrogen fluoride — that are used mainly for South Korea’s semiconductor industry as of July 4. The rules also downgrade South Korea’s trade status beginning later this month.

Japanese chemical manufacturers have expressed concerns that case-by-case inspections may prolong approval process and may hold up production lines for their customers.

The first approval came after about a month, much faster than the standard 90 days.

“The permit merely demonstrates that export licensing by the Japanese government is not arbitrary, and is granted to any legitimate transactions that pass strict inspections,” Seko told reporters. “The step we took recently is not an export ban.”

Moon cautious

South Korean President Moon Jae-in remained cautious while expressing hope that the impact of Japan’s measures won’t be as severe as Seoul had feared.

“Our government has planned for worst-case situation since Japan converted export approvals of the three materials to a case-by-case basis and has been preparing and announcing both short-term and long-term measures,” he said. “Of course, Japan may not proceed with export restrictions and there might not be any actual damage caused (to South Korean companies). But what hasn’t changed is that uncertainty is still alive.”

South Korea says Japan is using trade to retaliate against its court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean forced laborers before and during World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was under Tokyo rule.

Japanese officials have denied the export controls were retaliation for the court rulings, insisting that South Korean export controls were insufficient and may not be able to include shipments of sensitive materials to third countries.

Seko stood by Tokyo’s position and warned of a possibility of adding more items in addition to the three chemicals if export control officials suspect Seoul of inappropriate shipments.