South Korea-Japan ties sour amid fresh military drills near disputed islands
South Korea has begun annual military drills near a pair of remote islands that are also claimed by Japan, as the long-running territorial dispute threatened to sour preparations for the Tokyo Olympics.
The exercises near the Dokdo islands – referred to as Takeshima in Japan – began days after a meeting between the countries’ leaders on the sidelines of the Cornwall G7 summit was reportedly cancelled due to Japanese objections to the exercises.
Earlier this month, South Korea lodged a complaint with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after Tokyo 2020 organisers identified the islands as Japanese on an online map showing the route of the Olympic torch relay.
The start of annual military drills near Takeshima/Dokdo is expected to strain relations that have already been soured by recent disputes over the countries’ bitter wartime history.
Despite their status as key US allies and a shared interest in denuclearising North Korea, Tokyo and Seoul are locked in disagreement over Japan’s use of wartime sexual slavery and labourers who were forced to work in its mines and factories before and during the second world war.
Naval, air and coast guard forces will join the drills, which will be staged mostly at sea with minimal contact between troops due to coronavirus concerns, the South Korean defence ministry said.
Yonhap news agency said a rumoured meeting between the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, last weekend was cancelled after Suga took issue with the drills.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported that Moon had been planning to tell Suga of his desire to attend the Olympics opening ceremony on 23 July in a public show of support for the controversial Games. The visit would also be an opportunity for the two men to hold their first talks.
Moon said he was disappointed not to have met Suga during the G7. “My first encounter with prime minister Suga would have been a precious chance [for] a new start in the South Korea-Japan relationship, but I am sorry that it could not develop into a meeting,” he said in a Facebook post.
Japanese officials said the meeting had been called off due to scheduling problems.
A foreign ministry official in Seoul would not confirm if the drills were the reason for the cancellation, saying only “the exercises are regularly held every year for the purpose of defending our territory”, according to Reuters.
The drills around the South Korean-controlled islets have taken place twice a year since 1986, prompting frequent protests from Japan, which insists they are “inherently” Japanese – a claim it says is supported by international law.
“The drills are unacceptable and extremely regrettable,” the chief cabinet secretary in Japan, Katsunobu Kato, said on Tuesday. “We have protested to the South Korean government and called for them to be halted.”
Kato added that there was “no truth” in reports that Moon planned to visit Tokyo during the Olympics.
Japan has rejected South Korea’s demand to amend the Olympics map, prompting calls from some South Korean MPs to boycott the Games.
The islands – also known as the Liancourt Rocks after a French whaling ship that was almost wrecked there in 1849 – lie 225km (140 miles) off the east coast of South Korea.
The territory is guarded by a small police detachment; its sole resident is 83-year-old Kim Shin-yeol, who lived there with her husband, Kim Sung-do, until his death in 2018.