In Japan's Neighbors, Fear and Frustration Over Radioactive Water Release

In South Korea, fierce political wrangling has erupted over the government’s endorsement of the plan.

A woman holds a mock fish during a rally in Seoul, Aug. 24, 2023.
A woman holds a mock fish during a rally in Seoul, Aug. 24, 2023.
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Seoul office worker Kim Mijeong said she intends to stop eating seafood because she deeply mistrusts the safety of Japan's release of treated radioactive wastewater into the sea from its crippled nuclear power plant.

"We should absolutely cut back on our consumption of seafood. Actually, we can't eat it," Kim said. "I can't accept the Japanese plan because it's too unilateral and is proceeding without countermeasures."

Many foreign experts said the water discharge will have a negligible impact on the environment and human health. The International Atomic Energy Agency also said it has experts on the ground to ensure the release goes as planned. But with the discharge starting Thursday, public fears and frustration were being shared in its Asian neighbors, where many still bear strong resentment over Japan's World War II aggression.

In response to the release, China banned seafood from Japan. Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Shu Jueting called the discharge "extremely selfish and irresponsible" and said it would "cause damage and harm to the global marine environment that cannot be predicted."

Hong Kong and Macau said they were banning seafood from Fukushima and nine other Japanese prefectures. North Korea's Foreign Ministry called the release a "crime against humanity" and said Japan would be wholly responsible its "catastrophic consequences."

South Korean police detained 16 student activists Thursday for allegedly trying to enter the Japanese Embassy illegally to protest the release. The activists entered the building housing the embassy, shouted slogans and unfolded banners but failed to enter embassy offices, according to police.

In South Korea, fierce domestic political wrangling has erupted over its own government's endorsement of the Japanese plan. Liberal critics accused the conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol of pushing to improve ties with Japan at the sacrifice of public health.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol government and the ruling People Power Party are accomplices in the dumping of the wastewater," said Kwon Chil-seung, a spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Party.

The governing party accused the opposition of inciting anti-Japan sentiment and public fears for political gain, undermining South Korea's national interests and driving those in the domestic fisheries and seafood industries to the edge.

Yoon's government and the Democratic Party have already fought bitterly over another Japan issue — Yoon's contentious decision to take a major step toward easing historical grievances over forced Korean laborers during the Japanese colonial period. The Democratic Party accused Yoon of making concessions to Japan without receiving steps in return. Yoon maintains that improved ties with Japan are necessary because of shared challenges like North Korea's advancing nuclear arsenal and the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry.

Yoon administration officials have tried to ease public concerns by expanding radiation tests on seafood at major fish markets. Last month, some governing party lawmakers even drank seawater from fish tanks at a seafood market in Seoul to emphasize food safety.

But surveys of South Koreans show that more than 80% of respondents oppose the Japanese discharge plan and more than 60% said they won't eat seafood after the water release begins.

"I totally oppose the Japanese plan. The radioactive wastewater is truly a bad thing," said Lee Jae-kyung, a Seoul resident. "My feelings toward Japan have worsened because of the wastewater release."

Fears about the wastewater are taking a heavy toll on some businesses in South Korea's seafood industry.

In a seafood market in the southeastern port city of Busan, fishmonger Kim Hae-cheol said his revenues have halved since a few months ago and worried that his business would suffer more after the start of the discharge.

"I haven't had any customers today. In past years, I sold fish worth 400,000-500,000 won ($300-$380) by this time on a normal day," Kim said in a midday phone interview Wednesday. "Others in this market have had few customers today as well."

Kim said he trusts the safety reviews by the IAEA, Japanese and South Korean officials, but that his business has been battered mainly because some opposition politicians and media outlets "make much ado."

Japan also faced strong protests from local fishing organizations, which worry their catches will be shunned. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised his government's full support for fishing communities during the decades the wastewater will be released. The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives opposes the release, but its leaders say some members have gained confidence in the plan's safety.

Hong Seong-been, a Seoul resident, said political strife over the release has left many with a lack of genuine information about whether the water is truly safe or not.

In Hong Kong, about a dozen residents took part in a march in a central business district to protest against Japan's move.

After the protesters reached the building housing the Japanese Consulate, they tore up a big banner bearing Japan's flag and the words "No trace of humanity. An enemy of the whole world." Some held up placards calling for Kishida to step down.

The discharge plans have dealt a blow to Japanese restaurants which were already reeling from other problems, said Martin Chan, a director of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades. If Hong Kong follows China's lead and bans all seafood from Japan, he will have to suspend operations at his Japanese restaurant, he said.

During lunch hour, some residents rushed to Japanese restaurants and supermarkets to have what they called their last "safe" sushi meals.

Housewife Vivian Li said she would stop eating aquatic products from Japan after finishing her sushi lunch. Li said she likes eating Japanese food but she had to make the decision due to health concerns.

"I want to act as a role model for my children, so they will stop eating these products even when they grow up," she said.

But young professional Janet Yip said she would not cut her consumption of Japanese food because the release plans meet international standards.

In Taiwan, reactions to the release plan were muted. On a governmental level, Taipei is aligned with Tokyo on a score of issues and hasn't vocally opposed the discharge plan, which has been portrayed by Taiwanese media as conforming to international norms.

Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council, a government agency, expressed concern in the past over the discharge. On Tuesday, it said it would closely monitor radiation levels in waters around Taiwan.

The Philippines, which receives coast guard vessels and other aid from Japan, also stressed that it was looking at the issue from a scientific perspective and recognized the IAEA's expertise.

"As a coastal and archipelagic state, the Philippines attaches utmost priority to the protection and preservation of the marine environment," the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

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