Consumer boycott flares up in Korea amid few options against Japan’s sanctions

2019.07.04 12:08:21 | 2019.07.04 15:53:06

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Japan’s de facto export embargo in retaliation for Korean court rulings on wartime forced labor has sparked a consumer campaign to boycott Japanese brands and travel to the country.

More than 12,000 Koreans have signed a petition on the presidential office website, urging nationwide boycott against Japan and its brands.

Anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea built up against the Shinzo Abe administration as its ultra-right agendas flared up deep Korean resentment towards Japan’s aggressive colonial past. But the diplomatic row had not spilled over to the private sector until now, with Japan seeking to destabilize the supply chain of Korea’s chip and display manufacturing that form the backbone of the local economy.

On Monday, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that as of Thursday, it was removing Korea from the “white country” list that enjoys simplified approval procedure on key materials used in making chips and displays.

Abe said the state cannot allow “preferential” treatment to a country that has betrayed intergovernmental trust.

Seoul’s counterpunch so far has been rhetorical. It vowed to take the issue to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a process that can take months or even years.

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Meanwhile, Korean online communities have started a nationwide boycott of major Japanese brands, ranging from electronics names like Sony and Panasonic, auto brands like Toyota and Honda, to apparel labels like Descente and Uniqlo. Extremists called for tariff retaliations, travel bans or export restrictions.

The Blue House is required to answer to any petition that draws more than 200,000 electronic signatures.

A travel boycott could deal a major blow to Japan’s tourism industry. In 2018, about 7.53 million Koreans visited Japan and spent a combined 6.44 trillion won ($5.51 billion), making them the second-largest spenders in the country.

Consumer boycott would give some relief to the Korean government that has been scrambling to come up with countermeasures against the trade powerhouse. The government was also rendered helpless in the face of Beijing’s economic retaliation two years ago following Korea`s decision to install a U.S. antimissile system on its soil.

The government has been holding daily meetings and has vowed to take all necessary actions, including a WTO suit. But so far it appears to have few weapons at its disposal, as any retaliatory action like export curbs or tariff hikes would be a violation of WTO rules.

Japan has a clear upper hand when it comes to trade. Since the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties, Korea has run a persistent trade deficit with Japan, with most of the imports being materials and component parts that are vital to producing most of Korea’s mainstays, including semiconductors, petrochemicals and automobiles. In comparison, Korea’s main exports to Japan are easily substitutable items like petroleum and steel.

By Lim Sung-hyun and Kim Hyo-jin

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