A short while ago, we discussed the question whether the South Korean government was pushing its citizens to boycott Japanese goods or travel to Japan or whether this was an ordinary initiative of the citizens. The picture becomes much clearer if we pay attention to the way various officials are using people’s fears of radioactive contamination by promoting the topic of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was damaged by the 2011 earthquake.
This trump card is currently in play in several areas.
Firstly, this is the topic of contaminated food and non-edible goods.
It was originally limited to bans on importing seafood from potentially contaminated waters. Thus, in 2013, the South Korean government banned the imports of 28 types of seafood from Fukushima and seven other prefectures, as well as 27 types of agricultural products from 14 prefectures.
However, against the backdrop of the aggravation, the spokesman of the left-wing but opposition Peace and Democracy Party, Kim Kwang-soo announced that South Korea should even limit the imports of processed food from Fukushima, as radiation had been detected in shipments. However, citing data from the Ministry of Food and Pharmaceutical Security, Kim did not mention either the dose of radiation, or any indication that it had directly or indirectly affected anyone. The Ministry of Food and Pharmaceutical Security itself stated that it saw no problem with importing processed food from eight Japanese prefectures, as the Japanese Government was submitting inspection certificates and local quarantine offices were carrying out thorough quality inspections. The level of radioactivity in the cases mentioned by Kim was found not to exceed the allowable threshold of 100 becquerels.
Nevertheless, on August 23, 2019 new regulations on radiation control of foodstuffs imported from Japan came into force in South Korea. This applies to 17 food items, including instant coffee, tea, sugar products, chocolate and blueberries.
On August 8, 2019 the Ministry of Ecology of South Korea announced plans to toughen the procedure of safety inspection of coal ash imported from Japan and used for cement production. Japan accounts for about 99% of imports of this raw material; South Korea repeatedly expressed concerns about its toxicity and radioactivity, but experts believe this measure is part of the response to the Japanese measures aimed at limiting the exports to South Korea. Until recently, in order to import coal ash to South Korea, it was enough to present the results of the quarterly inspection. From now on, every batch will be checked.
The control of radiation and heavy metal elements in Japanese spent batteries, tires and plastics imported into South Korea for recycling is also toughened.
Secondly, it is the subject of the contaminated territory, where a South Korean shouldn’t go. After all, Shinzo Abe constantly says that products from the region are safe and insists on holding certain sporting events there during the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020. In addition, the administration is considering the possibility of supplying Fukushima’s agricultural and seafood products to the Olympic Village. In this context, playing with radiophobia can tarnish the image of the upcoming Olympics even before they begin.
Currently, the South Korean government recommends that people do not visit areas within 30 km distance from the nuclear power plant. However, in August 2019, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs began sending out messages urging the citizens visiting Japan to comply with the security regulations and the media began to publish statements that the Toburo Democratic Party, the government and the presidential administration are discussing the expansion of the area to include Tokyo and its environs.
According to Choi Jae-cheon, the Democrat spokesman, “Radioactive materials have recently been discovered in Tokyo, at a level four times the permissible threshold. Therefore, we need to consider expanding travel restrictions to all parts of Japan.” The member of the South Korean Parliament did not say what kind of materials they were and where they came from.
Another legislator, Shin Dong-keun, a member of the parliamentary committee on culture, sports and tourism, went still further and called on the government to reconsider South Korea’s participation in the Tokyo Olympics. “If the Tokyo Olympics are not immune to radioactivity, we need to review our participation in this event. The use of sport as a political tool is a problem, but the safety of our citizens is of paramount importance, so we shall need to reconsider the boycott of the Olympics if security is not ensured.”
At the same time, the South Korean mass media is beginning to publish openly manipulative texts, in which the surroundings of the nuclear power plant have already turned into a zone full of mutants. Typical manipulative texts are used with reference to certain unidentified scientists whose revelations cannot be verified.
As a result, the South Korean First Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said on August 11 that the government is considering the possibility of expanding the restrictions for travel to Japan. He stated both the radiation pollution level criterion and various demonstrations of the ultra-right forces in Japan due to the deterioration of relations between the two countries can be used in considering such an option.
Thirdly, there is the uproar that Japan is about to dump more than a million tons of radioactive water into the sea and cause a global environmental disaster. The President was the one to set the pace. According to a certain “well-informed source”, Moon Jae-in mentioned this during his recent meetings with senior government officials: allegedly, a utility company operating the destroyed nuclear power plant will discharge polluted water into the sea to cope with the shortage of storage facilities.
Actually, the news about the possible dumping has been roaming the Internet since May 22, 2018 and, in October 2018, South Korea informed Japan of its stance on this topic offering to hold a multilateral discussion of the polluted water discharge issue. Tokyo, on the other hand, has constantly been voicing its position that the final water discharge plan is under consideration and will be presented to the international community as soon as it is final, and the phrase “considers the possibility of discharging” is not the same as “the decision to discharge is made.”
Again, these depositories will be filled in two or three years, while if one reads the South Korean press, one may get the impression that this is about to happen any day now. Because of this, some experts call for dealing with the problem on the basis of serious research, rather than on sensational but obscure figures of the alleged damage to all living beings. However, the South Korean mass media publish mainly the representatives of Greenpeace, who believe that in the event of discharge, toxic radioactive materials may reach the Sea of Japan in less than a year. And South Korea will be among the countries particularly strongly affected by the discharge of toxic waste into the sea.
On August 14, 2019 the South Korean President Moon Jae-in instructed the government to take appropriate measures regarding Japan’s territorial claims to the Liancourt Islands and the possibility of discharging radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi-1 nuclear power plant. Moon Jae-in said that the government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism should take the necessary measures in connection with the fact that Japan described the originally Korean Liancourt Islands as its territory on the official websites of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The President instructed the government to actively address this issue, adding that coordination with international organizations was necessary. In addition, South Korean President called for an active response to the possibility of discharging polluted water from Fukushima Daiichi-1 into the sea.
On August 19, the Minister Counsellor for Economic Affairs at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Tomofumi Nishinaga was summoned to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide explanations. The Director of the Department of Science Diplomacy and Climate Change of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kwon Se-jung met him and gave him a letter stating that a radioactive water discharge will have a negative impact not only on the health of citizens of South Korea and Japan, but also on the residents of all countries connected by the sea. There is an emphasis on the need to approach this issue with the utmost caution and mindfulness, as well as to present an official stance on this topic.
In addition, Seoul plans to “continue to raise the awareness of this issue among the global community” and to continue discussing this issue in cooperation with international environmental bodies such as Greenpeace and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In particular, the relevant governmental organizations, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are planning to raise this issue during the annual IAEA General Conference due in September in Vienna.
On August 28, South Korea once again urged Japan to tell the truth. The statements that there are no specific plans at this time and that Tokyo “takes this issue responsibly on a scientific basis” were considered as runaround.
Summing it all up, one can see that, before the trade war broke out, the level of radiation safety and any related uproar did not bother anyone or at least it was within the norm. No recent examples have been found that this area poses a real danger either. Therefore, we are not talking about an actual concern with the environmental problems, but rather about Moon’s attempt to rekindle the topic as another part of the growing confrontation.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.