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(5th LD) S. Korea launches Dokdo defense drill amid tension with Japan

Defense 22:49 August 25, 2019

(ATTN: RECASTS lead to reflect its scale; CHANGES photos; ADDS more details in paras 2-3, 14-15)

SEOUL, Aug. 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korea kicked off a two-day military exercise on the largest scale ever on and around its easternmost islets of Dokdo on Sunday, amid growing tensions with Japan over trade and their shared history, in a show of its staunch defensive stance against Tokyo's repeated claims to sovereignty over the cluster of rocks in the East Sea.

The Navy announced that the regular drills, which have been pushed back several weeks compared to previous ones, involve the largest-ever number of forces from all three armed services, as well as Marine Corp troops and the Coast Guard.

The drills have been held twice a year, usually in June and December, mainly by the Navy and the Coast Guard to better fend off possible foreign infiltrations to the rocky outcroppings and the surrounding waters.

"Indeed, it's an exercise to guard our sovereignty and territory," Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Ko Min-jung said at a press briefing.

She added that it's a regular training and asked media not to attach excessive "political" meaning to it.

The South Korean Navy's special warfare flotilla officers take part in the drills on and around its easternmost islets of Dokdo in the East Sea on Aug. 25, 2019, in this photo provided by the Navy. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The timing of this year's practice has drawn keen public attention, with Seoul and Tokyo locked in an escalating trade fight.

Japan started imposing stricter export restrictions against South Korea in early July, a move apparently stemming from differences over wartime forced labor. Japan, which has made territorial claims to Dokdo, has protested the drills.

Tokyo claimed that South Korea is no longer trustworthy in terms of its handling of strategic, dual-use materials.

In a countermeasure, South Korea decided last week to terminate a major pact with Japan on exchanging military intelligence.

Ko said the Dokdo defense training is aimed at improving the military capability against potential threats from "all forces," not just Japan.

Asked about the schedule of this year's exercise, she added that weather conditions and "various other" factors were considered.

A Navy official earlier said the military formally named it "East Sea territory defense exercise" in consideration of its significance and size, a show of determination and resolve to defend the country's territories in the East Sea, including Dokdo.

South Korean warships operated by the Navy and the Coast Guard participate in the drills on and around its easternmost islets of Dokdo in the East Sea on Aug. 25, 2019, in this photo provided by the Navy. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Seoul's military drills immediately drew protest from Tokyo, which repeated its sovereignty over the islets.

In a protest lodged through a diplomatic channel, Tokyo expressed its "deep regret" over the drill and "strongly urged" Seoul to stop the drill, according to Kyodo News Agency.

Flatly dismissing such claims, a foreign ministry official here said the islets are "South Korea's inherent territory historically, geographically and by international law," vowing "stern responses to any wrongful territorial claims by Japan to Dokdo."

According to the Navy, the country's first Aegis-equipped destroyer, Sejong the Great, and nine other warships, along with 10 warplanes, including the F-15K, were deployed in the drills.

"Overall, the size of the armed forces doubled compared with previous levels," a Navy official said.

The Sejong the Great boasts the SPY-1D radar system capable of detecting and tracking 1,000 distant aerial targets simultaneously. With the system, the warship has detected North Korea's missile launches, including its first long-range rocket test in April 2009.

It is also equipped with an advanced fire control system, due to which the vessel was selected as a Top Gun ship during the fire support training of the U.S.-led multinational Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2010.

South Korea launched the Dokdo drills in 1986. Last year, the drills took place for two days in both June and December.

South Korea has maintained effective control of the nation's easternmost islets with a small police detachment since their liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Japan has persistently laid claim to Dokdo, drawing strong condemnation from the Seoul government.

Earlier this month, South Korea lodged a protest over Japan's marking of Dokdo as its territory on a map on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics website.

This photo, taken Aug. 19, 2019, shows South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo. (Yonhap)

pbr@yna.co.kr
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