South Korea yesterday said that it is to file a complaint with the WTO over Japan’s tightened export controls on key materials South Korean companies use to make computer chips and displays.

Seoul accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate over political rows. It is to formally request bilateral consultations with Japan as the first step in the WTO dispute settlement process, South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy senior official Yoo Myung-hee said.

Japan in July imposed tighter export controls on three chemicals that South Korean companies use to produce semiconductors and displays for smartphones and TVs, citing unspecified security concerns over Seoul’s export controls on sensitive materials that could be used for military purposes.

The measures, which weeks later were followed by Japan’s move to exclude South Korea from its “white list” of nations with fast-track trade status, triggered a full-blown diplomatic row that saw relations sink to a low unseen in decades.

South Korea says that Tokyo’s trade measures threaten its export-dependent economy, where many manufacturers rely on materials and parts imported from Japan.

It claims that Tokyo is retaliating over South Korean court rulings that called for Japanese companies to offer reparations to South Korean plaintiffs over World War II forced labor.

“Japan’s export restriction on the three materials were based on political motivation related to rulings by our Supreme Court on forced labor… It was a discriminatory measure that directly targets only our country,” Yoo said at a news conference.

Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko told reporters in Tokyo that he thought hardly any WTO member nations are sympathetic to South Korea’s position.

“Regardless, it is clear that our action is consistent with the WTO,” Seko said.

Tokyo would study the demands and respond according to WTO procedures, he said.

If Japan accepts South Korea’s request, the nations must hold consultations for a minimum of 60 days.

If Japan refuses the consultations or if the talks fail, South Korea could request a WTO panel ruling on the dispute.

The process usually takes about 15 months, but could also last years, South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy official Jeong Hae-seong said.

Seoul is also considering whether to pursue WTO action over Japan’s move to delist South Korea as a preferential trade partner, Yoo said.