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Anxiety grows across South Korea, as Japan prepares to release Fukushima wastewater

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As early as this summer, Japan is expected to release treated radioactive water from a damaged nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. This has neighboring countries worried, especially South Korea. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the release could undermine the fragile relationship between two key Asian allies of the U.S.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a traditional market in Seoul, the seafood stall Choi Jeong-hee has run for 30 years stands empty. He says some of his customers tell him that when Japan starts releasing the wastewater, they'll stop eating fish.

CHOI JEONG-HEE: (Through interpreter) Compared to last year, sales have more than halved. It's pretty serious. Once they start releasing the contaminated water in July, I'll start looking for some other business to do.

KUHN: South Korea's government has reassured consumers that its ban on the import of seafood from the Fukushima region will stay in place. Japan insists the water has been treated and poses no health risks. Many scientists agree, but not all. Choi Jeong-hee says he can't trust what his government tells him.

CHOI J-H: (Through interpreter) Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said he would drink the water, but when asked if he would let his children and grandchildren drink it, he didn't answer.

KUHN: Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan has been storing contaminated water in tanks at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. But it's running out of room, so it plans to start releasing the water into the Pacific. Resident Yang Soo-kyung, who is shopping at another market, is taking no chances.

YANG SOO-KYUNG: (Through interpreter) I bought salt in bulk last year, and I've not bought any recently. I bought it in advance because I was concerned about this year's kimchi-making.

KUHN: Salt is a key ingredient in Korea's famous fermented vegetable dish. Sea salt prices have risen by about 29% since last year, according to one agriculture and fisheries industry group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Korean_).

KUHN: Over the weekend, protesters gathered in downtown Seoul to oppose the water release. Polls show some 84% of South Koreans are against it. Some of them blame President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has worked to resolve issues left over from Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule over Korea. But Choi Eunmi with the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul says that Fukushima is a separate issue from the historical disputes.

CHOI EUNMI: (Through interpreter) Because the Fukushima issue is directly related to people's safety and health, even those who don't hate Japan or those who are understanding of Japan's position on historical issues still express concerns about the Fukushima issue.

KUHN: Washington has long tried to get Seoul and Tokyo to put aside their disputes and focus on security issues, such as dealing with North Korea and China. Choi says ties between the South Korean and Japanese governments are improving, but...

CHOI E: (Through interpreter) Neither South Koreans nor Japanese are positive about the prospects for the future. That means bilateral relations can be shaken again because the basis on which this improvement was made is not very solid.

KUHN: For example, any move by Seoul to lift the ban on Fukushima seafood imports, Choi warns, could trigger a public backlash.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.