On Sept. 26, a large-scale military parade was held in downtown Seoul to mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s armed forces under the slogan “Strong Armed Forces, Robust Security, Peace Through Strength.”
Military parades are usually held in the ROK every five years, but the last one was held in 2013 – in 2018, the Moon Jae-in government skipped the event due to its pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation.
The parade started at 4.00 pm local time and ran for one hour, in the area from Sunnaemun Gate to Gwanghwamun Square. Some 3,700 troops and more than 170 pieces of military equipment took part, including K2 tanks, K-21 BMPs, missiles (which we will talk about later), K9 self-propelled howitzers and attack drones. The Black Eagles Air Force aerobatic team’s T-50 and the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters were initially planned to participate, but these flights were canceled due to rain.
Instead, the military demonstrated in augmented reality format its newest destroyer, Gwanggaeto, equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, as well as surface and underwater UAVs.
According to the military, the 2023 parade was the largest parade since the founding of the armed forces and the first time the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps demonstrated their combined combat readiness. In addition, the parade was a joint parade – the first time more than 300 US troops participated. In previous years, the US Armed Forces in Korea only sent an honor guard and military bands to the parade.
President Yoon Seok-yeol took part in the parade along with military personnel and the general public. It was the first time a South Korean leader had done so on Armed Forces Day – clearly to heighten the significance of the event.
Shortly before the parade, President Yoon Seok-yeol spoke at a ceremony at the Sonnam Air Base south of the capital, and his speech was no less heated than the statements of DPRK military leaders. Here are its main points:
- The North Korean regime, which is modernizing its nuclear and missile capabilities in defiance of international warnings and “openly threatens” to use nuclear weapons, “must clearly realize that nuclear weapons can never guarantee its security.”
- The DPRK’s nuclear weapons “represent an existential threat to our people and a serious challenge to world peace.” Meanwhile, “the North Korean regime’s “obsession with developing nuclear weapons exacerbates the suffering of the North Korean people” and “continues to exploit and oppress its people and violate their human rights.”
- Only a strong army acts as a guarantor of true peace. Yoon Seok-yeol said he feels proud of the ROK Armed Forces, which is among the strongest armies in the world. At the same time, the president emphasized the ROK army’s readiness to fight back immediately in case of provocations by North Korea. “Based on combat-ready capabilities and a firm combat readiness stance, our military will immediately respond to any North Korean provocation. If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, its regime will be ended by the overwhelming response of the South Korea-US alliance.”
- The ROK-US alliance, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, serves as the foundation of South Korea’s national security. The ROK will further strengthen its security cooperation with the United States and Japan based on its “strong” alliance with Washington and build a strong security posture in close solidarity with its partner countries. Here, Yoon referred to the Washington Declaration he made with US President Joe Biden during their April summit and the framework of cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan established during the trilateral summit at Camp David last month. “Now, the ROK-US alliance has become a more advanced alliance based on nuclear weapons,” he said.
- In addition, Yoon Seok-yeol said he plans to continue working to improve the capabilities of the country’s armed forces and Yoon vowed to do everything in his power as commander-in-chief to build a strong military that inspires fear in the enemy and trust in the [South Korean] people.
- Yoon stressed the importance of developing advanced defense technologies such as artificial intelligence-based manned and unmanned aircraft control system, as well as space, cyber and electromagnetic weapons. “The government will redouble its support so that the defense industry – the engine of future growth that drives advanced industries – can contribute to national security and become a leading sector driving economic progress.”
- That said, the Moon administration’s course of improving the lives of military personnel is not off the table either. “Our soldiers will be given solid support in all areas, including salaries, military supplies, food, housing and medical care, to enhance their combat capabilities.”
- Separately, note the line “Our people will never be deceived by the phony peace tricks of North Korea’s communist regime and its followers.” On the one hand, this is actually an analogue of the North Korean principle of “no negotiations and no deals with the South” and on the other hand, it is a stone in the face of the Democrats, whose policy in the North Korean direction is positioned by the current regime as pro-Pyongyang.
The technical component of the parade is also of great interest, because, as in the North, it displayed the main assets of the South Korean “three-axis” defense system, including the “Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system”, air and missile defense (KAMD), etc. “Korean Massive Punishment and Retribution” (KMPR), which formally indicates the purpose of retaliatory strike, but in reality the means of incapacitation of the North Korean leadership in the event of a major conflict.
- The latest high-precision surface-to-surface ballistic missile of the Hyunmoo family with a heavy warhead, part of the KMPR plan
- The L-SAM air defense/missile defense system, which appeared in public for the first time. This is a long-range surface-to-air missile designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles at altitudes of 50-60 kilometers
- The Medium-range air defense system “Cheongung-II”
- The MLRS K-239 “Chunmoo”
Generally speaking, South Korea has developed a series of Hyunmoo missiles as its main Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation [KMPR] tool, including ballistic and cruise variants, a complete list of which follows below:
– Hyunmoo-1 (180 km range, 500 kg warhead mass, decommissioned)
– Hyunmoo-2A (300 km range, 1000 kg warhead mass)
– Hyunmoo-2B (500 km range, 1000 kg payload)
– Hyunmoo-2C (range from 1000 km, ICBM mass 500 kg)
– Hyunmoo-3A (cruise missile with a range of 500 km, ICBM mass 500 kg)
– Hyunmoo-3B (cruise missile with a range of 1,000 km, ICBM mass 500 kg)
– Hyunmoo-3C (cruise missile with a range of 1,500 km, ICBM mass 500 kg)
– Hyunmoo-3D (cruise missile with a range of 3,000 km, ICBM mass 500 kg, in the final stage of development)
– Hyunmoo-4-1 (surface-to-surface version, range from 800 km, ICBM mass over 2,500 kg)
– Hyunmoo-4-2 (ship-to-surface version, range from 500 km, target mass 1000 kg)
– Hyunmoo-4-4 (SLBM with a range of 500 km and an ICBM mass of 1,000 kg)
The most recent development of the ROK is the Hyunmoo-5, nicknamed the “monster missile” by the South Korean Armed Forces for its ability to carry, as stated by its creators, “the world’s heaviest warhead weighing 8-9 tons. Its task is to strike fortified and underground structures (tunnels, bunkers, shelters, etc.) at a depth of up to 100 meters. The power and destructive force of this missile make it comparable to tactical nuclear weapons. It is assumed that its serial production can be started at the end of 2023. There is also information that work is underway on the development of a warhead with more than 10 submunitions (cluster bombs or multiple warheads), which will make it possible to inflict fire damage over large areas.
Of course, military parades are much less frequent in the South than in the North these days, but it wasn’t always that way, especially when the military was in power in the ROK. And amidst the inter-Korean escalation, the South Koreans rolled out quite a colorful show both in terms of the demonstrative element and the iconic equipment. However, from the author’s point of view, the North Korean shows are better.
Also, the author doesn’t forget which date (October 1) is celebrated as South Korean Army Day. There is a rather curious history associated with this, since during the Korean War, the ROK army could only successfully mop up civilians or guerrilla formations. Most clashes with the KPA and the DPRK ended in flight and the few victories due to the courage of individual generals like Baek Seong-yeop were more the exceptions that proved the rule.
However, when the UN liberated South Korean territory, the question of what to do next arose. On the one hand, the formal tasks had been accomplished. On the other hand, there was the temptation to “build on the success” and finish off the North, even though transferring the war to DPRK territory meant the risks of further prolonging the conflict and involving Beijing or even Moscow.
So the debate went on for quite some time, but Syngman Rhee, who was eager to defeat the North and its coalition decided to spur things on and ordered General Paik Sun-yup to cross the border before the official decision was made. It is this moment that is celebrated in the ROK. And further, the UN command was put before the fact, the abrogation of which meant a greater political and reputational blow than the development of the offensive. All the more that the North Korean army at that moment was not yet able to organize serious resistance. That is why a number of historians and journalists continue to criticize this date, perceiving it not only as a day of the army, but also as a day of revanchism.
In addition, October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the United States. This document is interesting because in case of war the ROK army is subordinated not to the political leadership of Seoul, but to the so-called Joint (read ’American’) Command. This was done so that Syngman Rhee, whose regime did not sign the armistice agreement, on the one hand, was sure of the US help in case of an attack by the North, and on the other hand, could not start a war with North Korea on his own, bringing America into the conflict at the wrong time, in the wrong place and with the wrong enemy.
Now let’s discuss Yoon Seok-yeol’s speech. On the one hand, most speeches by a country’s leader at a military parade can’t help but be couched in appropriate rhetoric. On the other hand, the anti-North Korean pathos in President Yoon’s speeches is kept at a consistently high level. And here one can recall what Yoon has said on other solemn occasions, including on Aug. 15, 2023, the 78th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. At that time, Yoon Seok-yeol said that despite the fact that the ROK has been far ahead of the DPRK in development over the past 70 years, there are still anti-state forces that support communist ideas. According to the head of state, these forces carry out false propaganda and destructive activities under the guise of democratic activists and representatives of progressive forces. In order to cope with them, it is necessary to strengthen the alliance with democratic countries, the president said, emphasizing the importance of cooperation between the ROK, the US and Japan.
Thus, the North and the South have almost synchronously, but each in its own way, made demonstrations of strength and determination, and there will be many such events on the peninsula in the foreseeable future.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.