South Korea Launches Military Exercise for Islets Also Claimed by Japan
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Sunday kicked off its biannual military exercises aimed at demonstrating control over a set of islets that are the source of a territorial dispute with Japan, a move that was likely to heighten tensions between Washington’s two key Asian allies.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are already in their worst state in years as the two nations have engaged in a tit-for-tat escalation of tensions over historical and trade disputes.
The two-day military exercise began three days after South Korea announced that it would terminate a military intelligence-sharing deal with Japan to retaliate against trade restrictions Tokyo had imposed earlier.
The drill involved an unannounced number of navy and coast guard ships, air force planes and army and marine troops and took place around Dokdo, a set of largely uninhabitable volcanic outcroppings off the east coast of South Korea. The country has administered Dokdo, keeping a contingent of armed coast guard officials there since the 1950s.
But the rocks are also claimed by Japan, which calls them Takeshima. Japan has criticized the biannual military exercises by South Korea for raising tensions and aggravating bilateral ties.
“Our military conducts this exercise to further cement our determination to protect our national territories in the East Sea, including Dokdo,” the South Korean Navy said in a statement. South Korea has been conducting such exercises since the early 1990s.
South Korea had delayed the first of two exercises planned for this year as it sparred with Japan over the trade dispute. Since early July, Japan has imposed a series of export controls on goods shipped to South Korea, leading many South Koreans to respond with protest marches and boycotts of Japanese goods.
After Japan decided this month to remove South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners, South Korea decided to push ahead with the exercise and decided on Thursday to terminate its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.
Seoul’s decision to end the intelligence-sharing agreement was also a blow to the Seoul-Washington alliance. The United States helped broker the deal in 2016 to allow its two Asian allies to cooperate more closely in monitoring and dealing with ballistic missile tests by North Korea.
The dispute over the islets remains one of the most contentious unresolved issues from Japan’s often brutal colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945. The islets are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.
Japan accuses South Korea of occupying the islets illegally and has stepped up its campaign to highlight its territorial claim in recent decades. To South Koreans, Japan’s territorial claim epitomizes its early 20th-century aggression and what they consider its refusal to atone for its colonial occupation of Korea.
Russian and Chinese military planes flew together near the islets in an unprecedented joint training mission last month, forcing South Korean fighter jets to fire warning shots to drive away a Russian plane flying too closely to the islets. At the time, Japan protested the South Korean move.
Like the death of the military intelligence-sharing deal, the failure by South Korea and Japan to work together to counter the Russian and Chinese planes at the time provided fresh evidence that their historical disputes were undermining Washington’s efforts to build a closer trilateral security partnership to counter North Korea, China and Russia.