By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- Japan's imminent release of treated radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea has deepened concerns among South Koreans over the safety of seafood, and restaurant owners and fishermen are already feeling the pinch of the controversial discharge.
Many here, in particular, are worried about Japan's growing pressure on South Korea to lift the ban on seafood imports from Fukushima regions, though the Seoul government has flatly dismissed chances of its lifting while intensifying monitoring and testing to dispel public jitters.
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the release of around 1.34 million metric tons of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea starting Thursday, some 12 years after the facility was crippled by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
"Sales have sunk more than 50 percent after Japan announced the Fukushima plan," Wang Sang-cheol, a sushi restaurant owner at Seoul's Noryangjin market, said. "We are literally in a dire situation as we are still struggling to make up for losses from COVID-19."
In the aftermath of the radioactive water leakage from a storage tank at the Fukushima plant in 2013, sales of seafood in South Korean traditional markets tumbled around 40 percent, and major discount chains suffered a 20 percent decrease in seafood sales, according to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives.
South Korean imports of Japanese seafood have already been on the decrease for four months in a row until July, according to data from Statistics Korea.
A survey by Consumers Korea, a local civic group, showed that 91.2 percent of 525 respondents vowed to have less seafood and 63.2 percent said they had already reduced consumption out of safety concerns.
"We hoped for growth in demand for and prices of abalone as the Chuseok holiday season draws near, but things are rather getting worse due to the Fukushima issue," an abalone aquafarm owner in the southwestern county of Wando said.
Market watchers say consumers' loss of appetite for marine products would make a significant dent not only in the fishing industry but in the retail, tourism and broader related sectors.
"Yesterday, I saw the news about Japan's release plan and bought quite a lot of seaweed and laver, as the items are my kids' favorites. After the actual release, I will not give fish and other seafood to my kids at least for the time being," Jeong Sun-hye, a mother of two in Seoul, said.
"We've often visited coastal towns along the East Sea to enjoy the sea and seafood, but I think we'd better not and we don't need to go there. I don't know what to do and what will be good for my family's health," she added.
Earlier, South Koreans consumers and retailers had stockpiled salt out of safety concerns and in fear of a supply shortage after the discharge.
The Yoon Suk Yeol government has been treading a fine line regarding the Fukushima matter, as it seeks to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Japan while trying to alleviate mounting safety concerns among the people.
After Japan's announcement of the detailed release plan, the Seoul government said Tuesday that it sees no scientific or technical problems with the plan, though it neither approves nor opposes the plan.
But South Korea has launched an intensified inspection into the possible radiation in seafood and the marking of country of origin for imported seafood products.
So far this year, the country has conducted radiation checks on 6,233 cases of seafood at the production level, and all of them met the safety standard, according to the oceans ministry.
The government also earmarked 354 billion won (US$264.3 million) of budget this year to prop up the ailing fishing industry and to spur seafood consumption by distributing discount coupons and holding various events.
It is pushing to raise the price ceiling for agricultural, fishing and livestock products to be used as gifts during major holiday seasons from the current 200,000 won to 300,000 won.
"One-off promotional events or short-term measures will never be helpful for the fishing industry to overcome the current difficulties. The government must devise longer-term, comprehensive measures," an official of a fishers' association said.
Adding to woes is Tokyo's growing pressure on South Korea and other nations to lift the ban on imports of seafood from Fukushima regions.
South Korea has banned all seafood imports from eight Japanese prefectures near Fukushima from 2013, and China, Hong Kong and several other nations either have taken or plan to impose such restrictions.
Facing strong opposition from local fishermen, Kishida said Tuesday that Japan will strongly demand foreign nations lift such import bans at an early date.
"The Fukushima water discharge and the import ban on seafood caught from Fukushima regions are totally different issues," Park Ku-yeon, South Korea's first deputy chief of the Office for Government Policy Coordination, told a press briefing Tuesday.
"The government will not even review any import resumption," Park said, stressing that the government guarantees the safety of seafood in the country.
In 2015, Japan officially lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against South Korea's ban and additional testing requirements, and its dispute settlement body initially ruled in favor of Japan.
But the WTO appellate body overturned the decision in 2019 by accepting concerns raised by the Seoul government about the safety of seafood from the contaminated regions, saying that the ban does not constitute an unfair trade restriction.
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