Amid bitterly sour bilateral relations, and only days after axing an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, Seoul conducted its largest military drills ever on and around a pair of Korean-garrisoned islets that are also claimed by Japan.

With South Korea’s Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard deploying around the islets, 10 vessels, including an Aegis-armed destroyer, and 10 warplanes, including F15s, took part in the exercises.

TV news footage showed commandos and marines dropping from helicopters onto a landing pad, then aiming small arms into the sea, while warships cruised in the background.

The drills were not aimed at North Korea, but took place over two disputed islets. The two-day drills on, around and over the islets of Dokdo – known in Japanese as Takeshima – were the largest held since the drills were inaugurated in 1986, according to South Korean Navy sources quoted by Yonhap news agency.

The islets, which are set roughly equidistant from Japan and Korea in the Sea of Japan – which Korea calls the East Sea – area frequent sources of contention. Administered by Seoul and garrisoned by a unit of Korean police, the islets are a popular day-trip destination for flag-waving South Korean tourists, who brave often heavy seas to reach them by boat.

There is no Japanese presence on the islets, but Tokyo jealously argues its sovereignty.

Why hold drills?

Experts questioned the customary tactical necessity of the high-profile drills, which are held twice annually.

“If you believe Japan is going to muster an amphibious task force to secure Dokdo/Takeshima, that is delusional,” Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University, told Asia Times. “There are other things operating here. There is national identity and the humiliation of colonialism, so this is one way to signal displeasure toward Japan.”

Seoul and Tokyo are engaged in a high-profile battle which inter-mingles issues of wartime compensation, export controls, preferential trade status and military ties.

“The historically loaded message to the domestic audience is that Seoul will never again yield even a small piece of territory to Tokyo,” agreed Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, in an email.

Both governments spar verbally over the islets on a frequent basis, and that sequence was predictably repeated over the two-day drills, which end on Monday.

The maneuvers are “an exercise to guard our sovereignty and territory,” South Korean presidential spokesperson Ko Min-jung told a news conference.

“It is clear Takeshima is part of Japanese territory in light of historic facts and international law,” Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry, shot back in a phone call to the Korean Embassy. “The drills are totally unacceptable and very regrettable.”

Diplomatic weapon

However, this year things are different – something that Ko acknowledged when she said the current drills were aimed at “all forces” – the implication being not solely Japanese forces.

In July, in a highly unusual incident, South Korean aircraft fired warning shots at a Russian reconnaissance aircraft that overflew the islets. It subsequently transpired that Chinese and Russian aircraft were engaged in a joint drill in airspace between Japan and Korea, which have no bilateral military pact or communications channel.

Tokyo complained to Seoul about the firing incident, suggesting one aim of the Sino-Russian exercise was to drive an already deep wedge between the two US regional allies even further.

“Combined China-Russia air patrols may look to stir up trouble between South Korea and Japan,” Easley said. “More than that, they may seek to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies” which would create a “complication for Japanese and Korean national security.”

“Certainly, it was clever of the Russians to do the fly past as a way to antagonize the South Korean and Japanese to go off at each other,” Pinkston added. “The Russians accomplished what they had wanted to do.”

Trump, Abe, Kim and missiles

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe disagreed over the seriousness of North Korea’s recent firings of short-range ballistic missiles and multiple-launch rocket projectiles into the Sea of Japan.

“Our position is very clear: That the launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant UN Security Council resolutions,” Abe said, according to a White House transcript of the discussion.

Trump – after conceding that short-range missiles were an issue for Japan – suggested he was concerned only with long-range missiles and nuclear tests.

“I discussed long-range ballistic, and, that, [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] cannot do,” Trump said. “And he hasn’t been doing it. And he hasn’t been doing nuclear testing. He has done short-range, much more standard missiles.”

North Korea is prohibited, under UN Security Council Resolutions, from testing even short-range ballistic missiles.

Though Pyongyang’s recent barrage of test firings of short-range ballistic missiles and multiple launch rocket systems are widely seen as being a protest against South Korea-US summer military exercises, those exercises ended last week, yet North Korea fired yet more short-range projectiles on Saturday.