South Korea’s military began annual drills on Tuesday around a set of islands also claimed by Japan, days after planned talks between the two countries’ leaders were called off amid a spat about an Olympics map.
Seoul and Tokyo have been at odds over the sovereignty of the islets called “Dokdo” in South Korea and “Takeshima” in Japan, which lie about halfway between the two countries in the Sea of Japan, referred to by South Korea as the East Sea.
The decades-long territorial dispute was rekindled after South Korea lodged a protest about a map on the Tokyo Olympics website marking the islands as Japanese territory.
Tokyo rejected Seoul’s demand to remove the depiction of the islets in the Olympics map. South Korea asked the International Olympic Committee to mediate the dispute, and some South Korean politicians called for a boycott of the Games.
Relations between the two Asian neighbours have been frosty amid feuds over the islets, trade and the issue of compensation for victims who were forced to work in Japanese firms and military brothels during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule.
South Korea’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that the drills in the Sea of Japan involved naval, air and coastguard forces and were being staged with minimal contact between troops due to coronavirus concerns.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency earlier reported that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took issue with the drills and called off planned talks with President Moon Jae-in at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in England during the weekend.
While the two leaders exchanged greetings at the summit venue, they have not met in person since Suga became prime minister last September, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency.
A South Korean foreign ministry official told Yonhap that it was “regrettable that the Japanese side did not respond to the pull-aside plan, which the two sides had agreed on at a working level, due to the annual drills to safeguard the East Sea territory”.
An official at South Korea’s foreign ministry told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that the meeting could not be held, without specifying why.
When asked if a dispute over the drills was the reason, the official said, “The exercises are regularly held every year for the purpose of defending our territory.”
The South Korean drills around the islets have taken place twice a year since 1986, prompting frequent protests from Japan.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato denied the Yonhap report on Monday, saying it was “one-sided” and the talks did not happen because of scheduling difficulties.
On Tuesday, Kato said Tokyo had lodged a protest with Seoul about the exercises, saying the islands are Japanese territory by history and international law.
“This sort of drill is unacceptable and extremely regrettable,” he told a news conference. “We’ve protested to the South Korean government and called for them to be halted.”