South Korea is holding its first major military parade in a decade on Tuesday in Seoul with unprecedented US participation, a show of force at a time when tensions with its northern neighbor are at their height.
Some 6700 soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles and aircraft, including state-of-the-art F-35A stealth fighters, are expected to participate in the parade, according to the Defense Ministry. The rain that fell Tuesday morning in Seoul, however, threatened to spoil the party.
In an unprecedented move, about 300 soldiers from a US combat unit are scheduled to march through the center of the capital with their South Korean comrades, illustrating the consolidation of the military alliance between Seoul and Washington in the face of the North Korean nuclear threat.
Show of force
Traditionally, a military parade was held in Seoul every five years for Armed Forces Day. The last one was held in 2013, but the 2018 edition was replaced by a more sober ceremony by then-President Moon Jae-in, who was trying a policy of rapprochement with Pyongyang.
South Korea is now led by Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative who advocates toughness on North Korea. Since taking over the presidency in May 2022, South Korea has stepped up military cooperation with the United States and Japan, holding joint maneuvers on an unprecedented scale.
On Tuesday, the South Korean Air Force is also scheduled to fly the KF-21, the country's first produced fighter jet, as well as light helicopters and latest-generation drones, in the skies over Seoul, according to the ministry.
With the parade, Yoon intends to "strengthen the sense of security of South Koreans, while sending a strong warning to the North Korean regime," said Ahn Chan-il, a defector who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies. Yoon's message is "don't compromise on the security of the South," Ahn said. Another unequivocal message to the North is that the parade must place special emphasis on air and infiltration capabilities.
Thus, during the event, "more than 200 of the best soldiers from South Korea and the United States" must carry out "tactical drops in the same way as a real air infiltration," and "demonstrations of several penetration techniques," the Ministry of Defense announced.
According to experts, the air force is the weak link of North Korean forces. Pyongyang reacted with particular virulence when Seoul and Washington conducted joint air exercises. The parade is also a showcase to "showcase the new South Korean weapons that are on sale," Chun In-bum, a retired general, told AFP.
South Korea is a major arms exporter. In 2022, arms sales brought the country $17.3 billion, including $12.7 billion in contracts with NATO member Poland, including K2 tanks and K9 self-propelled guns. Under a long-standing doctrine, however, South Korea refrains from selling arms to countries at war. Despite having condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it refuses to deliver weapons directly to Kiev, unlike Western countries.
But that policy, experts warn, could change if North Korea starts exporting weapons and ammunition to Russia in exchange for space and military technology, as Seoul fears. A fear reinforced by the recent trip to Russia by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who visited weapons factories and attended a demonstration of the Russian Pacific Fleet.