SEOUL - South Korea on Monday began two days of war games to practice defending the disputed Dokdo islands off its east coast, a pair of rocky outcroppings that Japan claims as Takeshima.
The drills come just days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the suspension of America’s long-running joint exercises with South Korea aimed at deterring North Korea — calling them expensive and “provocative.”
The two-day exercise — tiny compared with the suspended U.S.-South Korea war games — will involve six warships and seven aircraft, Seoul’s defense ministry said.
A unit of marines will land on the largely barren islets, which are inhabited by around 40 people — mostly police officers.
“The Dokdo defense drill is a routine training conducted to prevent an invasion from external forces,” said Choi Hyun-soo, a spokeswoman at Seoul’s defense ministry.
Tokyo reacted angrily to the “extremely deplorable” drills, with the Foreign Ministry saying it had “strongly protested” via the the usual diplomatic channels.
It said the exercises were “absolutely unacceptable” and strongly demanded their suspension.
While an attack is deemed highly unlikely, South Korea first staged the drills in 1986 and has held them twice a year since 2003.
South Korea incorporated the islets into its territory when it drew the Syngman Rhee Line to define its territorial waters in 1952 and has stationed a garrison of border guards there since 1954.
Tokyo also claims the islands and accuses Seoul of occupying them illegally.
In 1965, South Korea and Japan concluded a basic treaty that normalized postwar diplomatic relations. But the territorial dispute has remained a divisive issue.
South Korea and Japan are both democracies and U.S. allies, and both are threatened by nuclear-armed North Korea, but their relationship has been severely strained by historical and territorial issues.
The two also have a long-running feud over the issue of the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemism for the many females who were forced into Japan’s wartime military brothels before and after the war, despite an agreement in 2015 to permanently settle the issue.