Japan on Tuesday defied South Korea's calls for the ending of tighter controls on some technology-related material exports to the Asian neighbor, offering no respite in growing tensions over what Tokyo views as a matter of national security.
A day after President Moon Jae In called for a "sincere" discussion, South Korea's trade minister said arrangements are being made for talks to be held in Tokyo on Friday to discuss the issue.
Still, prospects appear slim for the gap between the two nations to be bridged soon, with a Japanese government source saying the talks would only provide an opportunity to "explain" the details of the export controls at the request of Seoul.
South Korea denounced the Japanese measure as going against the spirit of free trade and demanded its withdrawal at a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, later in the day.
Despite South Korea's attempts to prod Japan to rethink the measure, implemented last Thursday, Japan has not budged and government officials in Tokyo say there is no need for bilateral talks because the step is legitimate.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that the step was taken following a domestic review that found export controls should be imposed more effectively.
"The measure is not something that needs to be discussed (with South Korea) and we are not planning to withdraw it," Suga said at a press conference.
But the top government spokesman also said South Korea's export control authorities are seeking to "check facts" with the Japanese government and it was prepared to respond to their request. Since July 4, manufacturers have been required to file applications before they can export to South Korea three materials needed in the production of semiconductors and displays for smartphones and televisions. Exports to South Korea were once exempt from the procedure.
Moon hinted at retaliation at a meeting of government officials on Monday, saying that if the Japanese move causes "actual damage" to South Korean companies, Seoul would have no choice but to take necessary action.
South Korean chipmakers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and SK Hynix Inc. are expected to be impacted by the curbs affecting fluorinated polyimide, resist and hydrogen fluoride.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, South Korea's Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Sung Yun Mo dismissed as "groundless" an allegation that hydrogen fluoride may have made its way to North Korea despite U.N. sanctions after being imported from Japan.
Japan has cited an "inappropriate case" in adopting the tougher export rules, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicating a connection with sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
Tokyo has also said the bilateral relationship of trust has been "significantly undermined," while rejecting the charge that the measure is in retaliation for Seoul's handling of a months-long dispute over compensation for wartime labor.
"We ended preferential treatment (given to South Korea) and now treat it the same as other countries," Japan's trade minister Hiroshige Seko said at a press conference. "Is that a problem from the standpoint of the WTO?"
Tokyo's relations with Seoul have hit the lowest point in years due to a series of court rulings in South Korea ordering Japanese companies to compensate South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor. Japan has maintained that a 1965 agreement with South Korea settled the issue of compensation "finally and completely." Seoul has ignored Tokyo's calls to resolve the dispute by holding bilateral consultations or by setting up an arbitration panel that involves a third country based on the accord.