South Korea has begun to play a few days of war games in a rehearsal of defending some islands off its east coast. While it is unlikely that any real attack will occur requiring a South Korean response, it is sure to irk Japan over the islands that Seoul controls, but that Japan claims are illegally occupied.

The South Korean navy issued a text informing that the two-day exercise named 'East Sea Territory Defense Training' will involve warships and aircraft. It is meant to bolster the county’s resolve to defend the Dokdo Islands (also known as Liancourt Rocks or Takeshima Islands). South Korea first staged the drills in 1986 as a semi-annual event normally held in June and December.

Described by National Geographic in a November 2018 article as “two seemingly inconsequential craggy islets”, the Dokdos lie equidistant between Japan and Korea in the Sea of Japan and have been the subject of a diplomatic dispute between the two countries for over 300 years. Seoul has controlled them since 1945 when Tokyo's 35-year colonial rule over the Korean peninsula ended.

Japan and South Korea, both allies of the United States, have always had a “testy relationship”, to say the least, since before World War II when Japan committed wartime atrocities and subjected Koreans and other foes into forced labor.

Despite several documented apologies by Japan, many South Koreans feel that Japan has never “apologized sufficiently”. Japan feels that the issue was settled by a treaty signed in 1965 when Japan compensated for past deeds with loans and grants totaling $800 million (the equivalent of about $6.5 billion in today’s dollars).

More recently the two countries are scuffling about trade and diplomatic issues. In July, Japan removed South Korea from its list of favored trade partners and Seoul responded in the same way by omitting Japan from their “list”. Prior to that, South Korean made a series of court hearings that ordered Japanese firms to pay again for the forced WW 2 labor.

The common problem that Japan and South Korea face is the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea. They are also both market economies, democracies and U.S. allies. South Korea is a bit friendlier to China, who has also provoked Japan in recent days over some islands south of Japan near Okinawa. South Korea’s response to the possible USA-Japan trade deal is not yet known considering the current U.S.-China trade war and how that will play out.

South Korean military
South Korean soldiers operate the loudspeakers at a studio near the border between South Korea and North Korea in Yeoncheon, South Korea, on Jan. 8, 2016. Getty Images/Korea Pool-Donga Daily