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Seoul quietly welcomes new fleet of F-35A jets

Dec 18,2019
South Korea formally introduced a fleet of next generation F-35A stealth fighter jets to its Air Force in a discreet ceremony on Tuesday that suggested Seoul trying to avoid antagonizing North Korea as tensions creep toward a peak before the year’s end.

According to military officials, the ceremony took place at an Air Force base in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, led by Air Force chief of staff Gen. Won In-choul, with around 100 figures in attendance including officials from the government procurement agency, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), and representatives from Lockheed Martin, the maker of the jets. Not even lawmakers of the National Assembly’s national defense committee were invited, and the entire ceremony took place without media coverage.

“The F-35A has already been made public at the Seoul Aerospace and Defense Exposition 2019, so there was little need for further promotion,” said a military official regarding the event. “We also considered the opinions of high-ranking figures, who were concerned about frequent exposure of our key armaments.”

Yet the low-key ceremony for the jets, of which South Korea has 13 so far and plans to increase that number to 40 by 2021, stood out as unusual given the attention it gave to similar ceremonies in the past. An introduction ceremony for the KC-330, a tanker plane based on the Airbus A330, held in January was led by Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, while former President Park Geun-hye partook in an Air Force ceremony in Oct. 2014, when South Korea formally introduced the FA-50, a light combat aircraft, to its military.

This has led to speculation in the military that the ceremony was deliberately toned down because of North Korea. Seoul’s procurement of F-35As has been a source of heavy criticism by Pyongyang over the past few years, given the stealth fighter’s capacity to strike at key targets across the Korean Peninsula.

The North claims the introduction of the F-35As represents a violation of an inter-Korean military agreement signed during the Koreas’ third summit in September last year. On Friday, one of its propaganda outlets, Uriminzokkiri TV, said the South’s attempts to build its military forces went against a mutually agreed decision to stop all acts of reciprocal violence, a claim that one South Korean government source said was a deliberate misreading of a clause in the 9.19 agreement that says both sides should discuss issues of military buildups.

In addition, Seoul’s decision to introduce the first of a set of unmanned surveillance aircraft - the RQ-4 Global Hawk - from the United States this week appears to be linked to its conscientious stance toward North Korea. The Global Hawk, which was bought by South Korea at a cost of around $950 million this year, is set to play a vital role in Seoul’s missile defense system amid signs that Pyongyang could return to growing its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In a statement from one of its inter-Korean agencies in August, the North slammed South Korea for its decision to acquire the RQ-4 spy drone, pointing out the hypocrisy it showed in seeking peace while at the same time building on its military assets.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]